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ISSUE 118 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/6/2005

2005: A stadium odyssey

By Ryan Maus
Sports Editor

Friday, May 6, 2005

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m proud to be a Minnesotan. Our state boasts a wealth of natural beauty, an excellent education system, a relatively low crime rate and robust social welfare programs. Plus, as most of your out-of-state friends have probably learned by now, the people here are just so darn nice it’ll make your face hurt.

Yet there is at least one area where I am utterly ashamed of my fellow Gopher State residents: our backwards views when it comes to building stadiums for professional sports teams. This state has a long and forgettable history when it comes to stadium policy, and recent events have led me to believe that, sadly, we’ve learned little from our previous mistakes.

Last week, Hennepin County and the Minnesota Twins announced that they had come to an agreement on a brand-new, 42,000-seat, open air ballpark for the team, to be built in downtown Minneapolis' Warehouse District near the Target Center. Funding for the $478 million project would come from several different sources, none of which directly involve state government. Twins owner Carl Pohlad would chip in $125 million, while Hennepin County would enact a 0.15 percent sales tax (which would be in place for 25-30 years) to raise the additional funds. For those of you scoring at home, a 0.15 percent sales tax increase amounts to three cents on every $20, or less than a penny on your morning latté and $30 on a new car.

“Great!” those of you unfamiliar with politics in the Northland may be saying about right now. “The agreement is beneficial for both sides, the logistics are all worked out, and the funding plan sounds relatively painless. What seems to be problem?”

In short? Just about everything.

When it comes to stadium policy in Minnesota, there is only one universal truth – the Twins cannot survive in the Metrodome in the long run. That 24 year-old concrete bowl in downtown Minneapolis is currently the worst stadium in major league baseball. The stifling atmosphere, ill-positioned baseball seats, artificial playing surface and aesthetics (or lack thereof) are just depressing. Yet the Dome's most damning characteristic stems from its very outdatedness. Simply put, the Twins cannot remain a financially viable major league franchise in their current stadium. The reasons are myriad, but the truth is undeniable.

The stadium saga began nine long years ago, when, taking their cue from other teams in the league, the Twins went to the Minnesota state legislature and made their first plea for a new home. The team was shot down that year … and the next, and the next and every single year since then. We've seen referendums defeated, legislative bills killed in committee, bills trounced in both the House and Senate and some plans that never even garnered a vote. In that time, the state's budget has gone from deficit to surplus and back to deficit, but this singular issue has always loomed overhead, like a rain delay that just won't go away.

Since this debate began back in 1996, almost half of the league's 30 teams have opened or procured new venues. Stadiums have sprung up in such unlikely places as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Detroit. But in a state which consistently ranks among America's most sports-centric, we have been unable, despite nearly a decade of trying, to decide on a workable plan which will allow the state's most successful sports franchise to depart from the football stadium in which they currently reside.

“Tired” is the word which best describes the stadium movement in Minnesota today. Twins officials are tired of courting public approval on such an unpopular issue. Twins fans are tired of hearing both sides reiterate the same old arguments. Public officials are tired of encountering the same roadblocks that have stalled this issue for much of the past decade. Everyone involved would like to see this issue resolved, one way or another. The choice is clear – either approve the new stadium, or the state loses baseball. Rarely do such complicated issues boil down so simply, but that is indeed the case in this instance.

When last week's plan was first announced, the prevailing mood was one of cautious optimism. It seemed almost too good to be true: no state money involved (a key sticking point in previous negotiations), a specific site with infrastructure and easy public access already in place, an infinitesimal tax hit spread out over many years and a generous up-front contribution from the team.

Yet in the true spirit of Minnesotan political indecisiveness, even this seemingly win-win situation has little chance of actually becoming a reality. Although the Hennepin County Board approved the ballpark plan earlier this week, the issue must still be voted on in the Minnesota state legislature, arguably the most maddeningly egalitarian political body in the country. In the off-chance that this issue even comes to a vote before the session ends in a few weeks (naturally, the legislature still has many other key bills to pass this year), it is unlikely that the a majority of the state's top politicians will suddenly come to a consensus on an issue they have successfully skirted for years.

However, what many lawmakers probably do not realize is that this may very well be the last gasp of the stadium movement. Both Pohlad and Twins president Jerry Bell have been unusually reserved when talking about the latest plan, an indication that they may be on the verge of giving up if it doesn’t go through. Contraction, thwarted in 2002, may once again rear its ugly head in 2007, making the Twins prime candidates for the chopping block. If no new stadium deal can be reached in the near future, the Minnesota Twins may very well cease to exist.

If that day comes, we’ll all be ashamed to call ourselves Minnesotans

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