Four months ago, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman floated a novel idea — taking “a regional approach” to the funding of sports facilities like the proposed Vikings stadium.
The details of Coleman’s plan are open to debate. But it makes little sense to continue using the politically expedient model that Minnesota has employed — relying upon a single city or county to provide a major share of the funding for facilities that are of regional, if not statewide, benefit.
If you examine the issue of a new Vikings stadium [PDF] from a regional perspective, you have to conclude that (a) Arden Hills is the wrong location and (b) a half-percent sales tax limited to Ramsey County is the wrong funding source.
Building a 65,000-seat, $1.1 billion stadium in a relatively remote suburban location:
• Fails to take advantage of the $2 billion this region has invested in rail transit. Instead, it drains the transit system of current riders. About one in seven Vikings fans travel to and from games at the Metrodome via light rail transit (LRT), commuter rail or bus, according to Metro Transit.
• Requires 13 road and bridge improvements costing $101 million, just $20 million of which are currently programmed.
• Calls for the construction of 21,000 parking spaces that would be fully utilized perhaps a dozen times a year.
Why Vikings back plan
There’s no mystery why the Vikings ownership favors locating the stadium on a portion of the 2,400-acre site formerly occupied by Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP).
It would allow the team to capture all of the revenue from parking, as well as the sale of food and beverages. After all, there aren’t a lot of bars and restaurants to compete for pre-game or post-game business.
For the region as a whole, it makes far more sense to locate a new stadium on one of two so-called Farmers Market sites near downtown Minneapolis — within walking distance of Hiawatha LRT, Northstar commuter rail, the soon-to-be completed Central Corridor LRT line and the 7,000-space ABC parking ramps.
Either of the Farmers Market sites would be directly served by the proposed $1.25 billion Southwest Corridor LRT line, which is now in preliminary engineering.
The Southwest Corridor LRT line, which would run from Eden Prairie to Target Field, would “interline” with the Central Corridor LRT line — with the same trains running from Eden Prairie all the way to downtown St. Paul and vice versa.
This means a rider who boarded in Eden Prairie could ride the same train all the way to downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota or St. Paul. Similarly, a rider who boarded in St. Paul could ride the same train to Target Field or a Vikings stadium located at Farmers Market.
A stadium in the Farmers Market area also would complement the sports and entertainment district in the North Loop area, home to a growing number of bars, restaurants and theaters. It is far more likely to generate spinoff development than the Arden Hills site.
The Farmers Market sites — one 23 acres and one 28 acres — admittedly have drawbacks. Both have multiple owners, making land assembly more challenging. One would displace the market and the other would displace Sharing and Caring Hands, a charity that provides food and shelter to the homeless.
A study commissioned early this year by the city of Minneapolis has estimated that using one of these sites would cost up to $111 million more than reuse of the Metrodome location.
However, some of this cost would be offset by the revenue lost by the Vikings if the Metrodome site were used and the team had to play at TCF Stadium during the three or more seasons while a new stadium was under construction.
Then there’s the issue of financing. As the Metropolitan Council study released last week highlighted, the proposed funding for the local share of the Arden Hills stadium is a risky deal for the taxpayers of St. Paul and Ramsey County.
To generate the $350 million local share of the stadium’s cost, Ramsey County would levy an additional 0.5 percent sales tax. That’s more than three times the tax Hennepin County imposed to help fund the construction of Target Field.
It would result in St. Paul having the highest sales tax in the state, a competitive disadvantage that the metro area’s smaller “twin” doesn’t need.
And even this tax levy may not be enough. Under the county’s agreement with the Vikings, it has agreed to fund a potential additional $58 million in cost overruns, bringing the total county share to $408 million in a worst case scenario.
As the Met Council report pointed out, the county “would need to find additional revenue sources to fund cost overruns.”
Professional sports teams are a regional and statewide amenity, and should be funded from regional and statewide sources. Mayor Coleman proposed a 2-cents-a-drink statewide tax for sports facilities, which he said would generate $48 million a year.
Another option would be a region-wide sales tax, which could be used to create an economic development fund for sports facilities and other purposes. It would complement the Twin Cities economic development and marketing efforts unveiled last week by Greater MSP.
For St. Paul and Ramsey County, a modest consolation prize would be to include $27 million in the stadium package to help fund a new 7,000-seat urban ballpark in Lowertown for the Saints and amateur baseball.
Such a ballpark would be a magnet for the lively new entertainment district in Lowertown, as well as for the housing being developed there. It also would support the new Central Corridor LRT line, generating an estimated 50,000 additional transit rides a year.
Midway Stadium, the current home of the Saints and more than 100 amateur games a year, is in far worse condition than the Metrodome. It can be replaced for a tiny fraction of the cost of a new Vikings stadium.
There are ample reasons to question the use of public funds for new sports facilities, especially given the dubious economics of professional sports. But if we want to retain the pro football, the region deserves a better deal than the one the team and Ramsey County are pushing.