I know the clichés and stereotypes: The Pohlads are cheap. The public shouldn’t be in the business of building ballparks. The Dome’s good enough.
As a former newspaper sports columnist and, later, a metro columnist, I was a frequent participant in helping to create them.
But recently, I had the opportunity to take a nearly two-hour tour of the Minnesota Twins‘ new outdoor park. I expected to be unimpressed. But as I exited the place, I found myself asking this question: “Am I really in Minnesota?”
New ballpark will remake downtown
The ballpark is beautiful. It’s going to change the aura of downtown Minneapolis. And part of the reason for that is that those “cheap Pohlads” have poured considerable money into the public space beyond the park.
Before more on the park, however, more disclaimers are needed.
Since leaving the Star Tribune two years ago, I’ve spent some of my time writing a book for the University of Minnesota Press on the history of the Twins. The book is to be published next spring, just about the time Target Field makes its official debut.
The Twins were helpful in this project, especially in connecting me with former players. But the Pohlads did not respond to requests for interviews, perhaps because they remembered many of the shots I fired their way over my years at the newspaper. (Billionaires make such easy targets for newspaper columnists.)
And still more disclaimers:
Financing plan made me change my opposition
After years of ridiculing the idea that the public should be expected to build a ballpark, I did a 180-degree switch in 2006, when Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat came up with a simple plan for public funding. Opat’s plan was to add a .015 percent charge to the sales tax in Hennepin County. That amounts to three cents on every $20 purchase.
My switch angered many. But I was intrigued by its simplicity and also by my beliefs that: a) state leaders were incapable of making a hard decision and b) without a new ballpark, the team ultimately would leave Minnesota.
Under the Opat plan — to the contempt of many, there was no referendum, for Opat knew a referendum would doom the project — the public payment in the stadium was capped at $350 million, $90 million of which was dedicated for infrastructure. The Twins were to contribute $130 million. Additionally, unlike its current arrangement at the Metrodome, the team is required to pay all annual maintenance costs at the ballpark, which are expected to run from $10 million to $12 million a year. (At the Dome, there the team pays nothing for annual maintenance.)
An added, little-publicized bonus that might even ease the pain for some ballpark opponents: The sales tax, which even in these down times is generating enough money to pay off the $20 million annual mortgage payment on the ballpark, also is kicking in new revenue for amateur sports and the county’s library system.
Already, Opat said, Minneapolitans may have noticed that a number of libraries, including the downtown library, are now open again Sunday. Those libraries have re-opened, thanks to $2 million annually coming from the ballpark sales tax.
“Ballpark Sundays” is what Opat calls the expanded library hours.
Additionally, the county has signed an agreement with the state’s Amateur Sports Commission to award $2 million annually in grants for sports programs in Hennepin County from revenues from the sales tax.
So now, we come to the “cheap Pohlads.”
From the beginning, they’ve been writing checks for extras, including a check for $19.5 million to help cover the infrastructure costs. (The public’s $90 million was not enough for the costs of land purchasing, soil cleanup and the rest.)
Twins pitch in extra $55 million inside and outside park
In total, the Pohlads — since the death of Carl Pohlad, his son Jim has become the major voice of the family when it comes to baseball matters — have spent $55 million beyond their initial $130 million contribution. It should be noted, too, that the Twins’ $130 million obligation was paid up front.
Some of this extra money has been spent for aesthetic improvements inside the park: more Minnesota limestone trim along a wall above left field, limestone trim above the dugouts and around the pressbox, for example.
“Seeing teams put additional money inside the ballparks may not be unusual, but they’ve put close to $20 million to enhance the public space [outside the ballpark],” said Dan Kenney, executive director of the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, day-to-day problem-solver and the coordinator between Hennepin County and the Twins.
The five-member Authority board includes two members appointed by the governor, two by the Hennepin County Board and one by the mayor of Minneapolis. The authority is the actual owner of the ballpark.
The site selected has some pluses — and one major minus.
On the positive side, there are several publicly owned parking lots. Opat notes that there will be a nice side bonus for the public from those ramps, which usually sit empty many evenings. Baseball fans will be filling up the ramps 81 times a year, producing new revenue.
Additionally, the site is at the confluence of highways, light rail and the new Northstar Commuter Rail line, which is to open in November. Though the commuter line is a shared rail line, officials believe that there will be enough scheduling flexibility to tie commuter trains to Twins games.
The downside is the size of the site itself — a tight fit for a 40,000-seat ballpark on just nine acres of land. Planners had to use every foot of that space to produce, in effect, a “throwback ballpark” that’s folded into the downtown environment. The stadium and sidewalks, streets, tracks and a bike path all meld now into an area that once was a dreary landscape of surface-level parking used only by the brave or the cheap.
Plaza will become popular gathering space
The most noticeable stadium enhancement is a plaza, beyond the right-field boundaries of the ballpark. Target Corp., which has purchased naming rights to the stadium, and the Twins kicked in $9 million to create a plaza that opens the ballpark to the adjacent Target Center and then to the entire warehouse district and all of downtown Minneapolis.
The plaza will be open day and night, year-round, with the Twins responsible for maintenance and security. There will be concession stands open, even when the team is not playing. This will become an outdoor public gathering place that downtown Minneapolis has sorely lacked.
The team didn’t stop with the plaza. Sidewalks down along Seventh Street from the Warehouse District to the ballpark have been widened from 8 to 17 feet, with landscaping along the way.
(By the way, sod used in all landscaping outside the park has been purchased from Minnesota growers, unlike the sod for the field, which was purchased from a grower in Colorado, much to the consternation of a handful of Minnesota growers.)
The Pohlads also have written checks for improvements in sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses in other areas around the park.
Few details have been overlooked. A Pohlad check is behind a huge piece of public art that will hang over the bland wall of a parking ramp beyond left field. There are benches, trees and grass everywhere — outside the park. Opat said Pohlad is even insistent that each of the 3,500 workers who helped build the stadium have a chance to go to a game with friends or family at no cost.
Surely, there will be complaints about the ballpark. Some of the upper-deck seats appear to be very high up. Until fans figure things out, there will be traffic issues and parking headaches. Until the first game is played, no one will know whether this will be “a hitter’s park” or a pitcher’s paradise.
It’s my belief that many fans won’t miss the Metrodome on those cold spring and fall days. We’re Minnesotans; we have boots. And for the fainthearted, there will be heated areas in the open concourses, where fans will be able to huddle and still watch the game. But on sweltering summer days, when the air is thick and the sun is hot, we may look back fondly on the air-conditioned confines of the Dome.
Almost certainly, fans are also going to miss the decided home-field advantage the Twins had playing in the Dome, which produced strange hops and fly balls lost in the roof.
But clearly, this is a place that will change downtown. What was a dead zone will come alive. And because of the plaza and walkways, there may be a spillover of people into a downtown that is often devoid of vitality.
“I think Jim has been interested in making a statement,” said Opat, implying that the Pohlads, who fought hard and offended many over the years, are interested in helping create a ballpark that puts to rest many of the hard feelings that led up to the construction.
The Pohlads, of course, are getting a lot out of this deal. But the public is getting something special, too.