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Target Field: Economic impact is years — and dreams — away

The big question for developers, Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials and the Twins is how much development will follow? The answer, and not a satisfactory one, is: Time will tell. Lots of time.

As the official opening of Target Field dawns on Monday, critics skeptical of the “economic impact” of stadiums can easily argue that they are winning the day.
 
So far, all anyone can point to as a result of the new $555 million Twins ballpark is a convenience store/gas station at Fifth Street North and Sixth Avenue North, and a handful of replacement restaurants and bars springing up along First Avenue near the ballpark. In many cases, these “new” enterprises represent classic examples of transferred — not new — economic activity in the region, the sort of “moving the chips on the table” scenario so long blasted by stadium subsidy opponents.
 
Hubert’s, which was the singular Metrodome-linked watering hole, has added a site in Target Center, across the street from the ballpark. Hubert’s Dome customers will simply move their dollars to the Target Field location, which is replacing another sports-bar/restaurant that was once there. Kieran’s Irish Pub, which was located a few blocks away in downtown Minneapolis, has taken the place of Bellanotte, which went out of business in Block E. Roy Smalley’s Club 87, a new restaurant, has set up in the former Champps in Butler Square.

According to city records, between January 2009 and March 31, 2010, permits for $18.4 million in new and remodeled construction were issued for an area around Target Field, but not all of those permits were ballpark-related, and a huge chunk – $5.8 million — was to improve an existing parking ramp.
 
Is that all there is? For now, yes.

Hubert's
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Hubert’s is preparing for its new location adjacent to Target Field.

Is that all there will be? Of course not, and given the current economy, Mike Christenson, Minneapolis director of community planning and economic development, expressed a certain level of glee even with that limited activity.
 
The big question for developers, city and Hennepin County officials and the Twins is how much will follow? The answer, and not a satisfactory one, is: Time will tell. Lots of time.
 
Will Target Field generate or nudge massive economic activity in the so-called North Loop? Could it ride a wave of ancillary development?

It all depends … on how you define economic activity, and on whether your period of assessment demands instant gratification, or your horizon carries patience and realism. It also depends on the development of an intermodal transit exchange that, some say, could be the real engine for change around the ballpark.
 
What we know so far
The first official American League regular season game has yet to be played. Already, the existence of the facility has created a palpable excitement that City Council Member Lisa Goodman, a critic of subsidies to sports facilities, acknowledges has value … although probably not equal to the $350 million of Hennepin County-backed public financing.

Lisa Goodman
Lisa Goodman

Goodman, in whose ward Target Field sits, said, “It’s great from a civic pride perspective.”
 
We know the Twins are expected to attract about 3 million customers this season, and likely for the next couple of seasons, to a section of downtown Minneapolis that was once known only for surface parking lots tucked next to what many derisively call “the garbage burner.” (More on that later.) We know the team is marketing the suites and clubs in the stadium for conferences, weddings and other social events to keep it somewhat active during the off-season. Already, the stadium is a destination for mere curiosity-seekers, even when the Twins aren’t playing.
 
As downtown developer Chuck Leer of North First Ventures told MinnPost: “There is a euphoria from doing something right as a city, as a county and as a state. That’s going to give some lift” to the area around the ballpark. It is difficult to argue against community spirit in the urban setting in the throes of this Great Recession. What’s it worth? Unknown.

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(But failed Block E on Hennepin Avenue and a short walk Target Field is in the process of being sold and its buyer has cited the arrival of the ballpark.)
 
We also know that the ballpark has been designed — with a plaza extending toward the heart of downtown — to encourage people to come early, hang around and leave later. The Target Plaza gathering place has been established — with private dollars from the Twins and Target, by the way — linking downtown to the north side. That’s good for city life.
 
We know that, unlike the Metrodome, Target Field was placed in an area that already had some sizable economic activity — the Warehouse District — and another sports and entertainment facility — Target Center. Some housing already has been developed nearby.
 
But we also know that the economy remains in the tank, and that the credit markets continue to be unkind to developers.
 
“Target Field has opened at an absolutely terrible time for ancillary development,” said Steve Berg, a Twin Cities journalist and urbanologist, whose book “Target Field: The Minnesota Twins’ New Home,” will be published this summer.
 
And if any developer is expecting to get subsidies from the city any time soon to jump-start development near Target Field, they should think again. As Council Member Goodman said, “I believe many people think the Twins ballpark was the subsidy” to boost development.
 
We also know that as communities around the country have financed and funded stadiums and arenas over the past 15 years, there has been — for at least one noted urban scholar — an evolution of thought about the benefits of such projects. To wit, University of Michigan Professor Mark Rosentraub wrote a book in 1997 called “Major League Losers,” in which he argued against subsidies to team owners and questioned the value of public funding for sports facilities.

This year, he wrote a new book, “Major League Winners,” detailing how in some communities — San Diego, Cleveland and Indianapolis, for example — thoughtful “investments” by government have succeeded.
 
Noting that his ideas have evolved, Rosentraub wrote in an email to MinnPost: “It is agreed that sports by itself adds only a little to a regional economy in terms of its individual and direct impact (the value of a team). This is because in the absence of a team, people still spend money for recreation, leaving the regional economy almost neutral. What does change, however, is the location of that spending. For example, having a team in a downtown area or in a declining central city or where public officials want it located MOVES regional economic spending to a specific location.”
 
We also know that the conditions and visions affiliated with Target Field are very different from those that were attached to the Metrodome, which has long been offered up as Prime Exhibit One for the skeptics’ case of “stadiums do nothing” for a surrounding community. The Dome’s sad ancillary development history is filled with myth. When it was built, city fathers didn’t really have a development plan. Their instincts were to bring the Twins and Vikings from Bloomington — the burgeoning 1970s suburbs — to the core city, more as a symbol than a development trigger.
 
A new urban ballpark
At this point in history, the Target Field location is significantly more advantageous than the Dome’s was 30 years ago. It wasn’t dropped down, as if a spaceship landed on the edge of nowhere, tucked behind a hospital and parking lots. It’s attached to an existing entertainment district and to plans.
 
There are those who say that a neighborhood with 81 baseball games and noisy trains won’t be the most attractive for housing. Others don’t agree. There are those who say Minneapolis’ central business district is filled with vacant office space and empty hotel rooms, and we won’t need more for a long while.
 
But most of the optimism that surrounds Target Field stems from the related mass transit piece of this ballpark, and a rarely mentioned energy component.
 
For their part, Twins officials are not overselling the impact of the stadium. Their narrative of the ballpark driving “economic impact” changed a long time ago. The team’s chief spokesman during the Twins stadium lobbying, Jerry Bell, listened to the “economic impact” critics, and his argument migrated to preserving Major League Baseball in Minnesota and to retaining a statewide cultural asset. Still, Twins officials in their actions, according to government officials, have revealed a keen understanding of the relationship between the stadium, mass transit and environmental issues.
 
Twins President Dave St. Peter said Target Field will be a “home run” for Warehouse District entertainment businesses, but “my belief is that the transit interchange is the most critical element in driving the development in this part of downtown.”
 
A driving force behind rail’s link to the ballpark and the district is Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. The interchange he is promoting includes the Central Corridor Light Rail, the current Hiawatha line, the just-opened Northstar commuter line, the fast train to Chicago and other LRT and commuter train lines all leading to the Target Field station. Thousands of bus trips a day end at garages nearby. Parking ramps are in place nearby. The Cedar Lake Bike Trail is planned to go along there.

Peter McLaughlin
Peter McLaughlin

Some folks have already taken to calling it “the Grand Central Station” of Minneapolis. On the white board in his Government Center office, McLaughlin has hand-drawn tracks and dates that suggest a completion date for all of this rail activity by 2020.
 
“Those train lines coming together are a very, very powerful attraction for investment,” McLaughlin said.
 
They would bring suburbanites in for work and pleasure, a chance to enjoy a city they might otherwise fear. They would allow city dwellers to travel throughout the urban core, and beyond. They would reduce automobile traffic.
 
“Rail investments keep the center the center,” McLaughlin said, and right next to it is the region’s newest amenity, the ballpark and one of its arenas, Target Center, not to mention an entertainment district a short walk away.
 
Retail has been ceded to the suburbs. Forget about that attracting people to the core. Core cities, as Rosentraub points out in “Major League Winners,” are the locations for “unique activities” that can’t exist anywhere else in a region. Sports and culture are among those fewer and fewer unique activities.
 
Visions
Then, there are the grand visions related to the trains and the games. To understand one, you need to go up on the roof of an aging mini-storage warehouse at the corner of Third Avenue North and Fifth Street North and dream with Bruce Lambrecht. Eleven years ago, lots of people called Lambrecht names worse than dreamer when he told his business partner Rich Pogin that a Twins ballpark could and should be built on a parking lot tucked to the north and west of the I-394 entryway into downtown. It became the site for the Twins ballpark.
 
With that deal done, Lambrecht and other partners still control another tight piece of land adjacent to that “Grand Central Station” location. Now, as he stands on that warehouse roof, the Target Field bull’s-eye stares at him and the ballpark rises as a shining monument to perseverance, deal-making, a new sales tax and various levels of profit.

Bruce Lambrecht
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
With Northstar commuter line trains below him, the hoped-for site of Minnesota’s own “Grand Central Station,” Bruce Lambrecht gazes at what could be.

Lambrecht and his nearly 100 partners collected more than $28 million for the land, the Twins franchise value was tagged at $405 million this week by Forbes magazine (up 14 percent over last year) and team ticket prices went up 45 percent, the largest increase in the Major Leagues this season.
 
He has a vision that encompasses both the baseball and rail assets in his backyard. On this site, he envisions a 35-story “sports and entertainment condominium” development, with 11 floors adding 254 hotel rooms on the bottom and 20 stories adding 185 condos on the top. From the windows of those southwest facing condos, an owner would be sitting just beyond and just above the left field stands, and could gaze into the ballpark.
 
Hotel guests would have instant access to the stadium, and a concierge service would aid them with tickets to events. On non-game nights at Target Field, in Lambrecht’s vision, hotel guests and condo owners would hop on light rail trains and head to downtown St. Paul for a Wild game or to the University of Minnesota campus for an event. Or simply stroll downtown. Or take a family on a bike ride on the Cedar Trail.
 
Extreme? Impossible?
 
“It might sound extreme,” Lambrecht said, “but so did a ballpark on eight acres of land next to a garbage burner 11 years ago.”

35-story "sports and entertainment condominium" development
Illustration courtesy of Dennis J. Sutliff, Elness Swenson Graham Architects, Inc.
A dream, or the next phase? Land owner and developer Bruce Lambrecht envisions a 35-story “sports and entertainment” hotel and condominium project on Fifth Street North, just beyond left field of Target Field, directly adjacent to a transit hub.

A long view
Can that happen? Should that happen? Lambrecht’s is not the only big idea. Twins Inc. President Jerry Bell takes a visitor on a tour of the stadium and looks at the same plot of land and imagines a 40-story office tower, with workers from all over the region arriving there via trains.
 
There is the possibility of something growing out of the Seventh Street side of the ballpark, where a players’ parking lot now sits. The Twins own the air rights over that lot.
 
Housing is a possibility moving out from the stadium towards the neighborhoods along the Mississippi River to the north and east, probably through refurbished warehouse space. The future of North Minneapolis could be linked to the transit hub.
 
The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center — known as the “garbage burner” — could also be a key component to development. Developer Leer calls the ballpark, the rail hub and HERC’s energy piece an example of “harmonic convergence.” HERC could serve to create energy for the entire district as it grows, he said.
 
For now, all of those ideas — good and bad — are non-starters because of the economy. For now, the talk of housing is muffled because the condo market will need to shake out over the next three to five years, as already built units are sold and new demand grows, demand driven by the transit hub, by the energy on the streets because of the ballpark and Target Center, because of more people coming downtown, because of the aging population of the suburbs.
 
An indication of the longer view that needs to be taken can be seen in the renaming of an activist ad hoc group of urban lovers, developers, city boosters and business leaders that Leer chairs. Formed a few years back to begin envisioning the growth around the ballpark, it was called the 2010 Partners.
 
But recently, the group changed its name. It is now the 2020 Partners. That’s a decade down this uncertain road.

By then, McLaughlin’s white board might be a clear slate, with all the train lines operating. By then, another Lambrecht project might have shocked the community. By then, the optimists hope, Target Field will be one piece of a successful urban pie, not the centerpiece, or the only piece, not merely a magnet for a transferred restaurant here or a relocated bar there.

Jay Weiner has covered Minnesota’s stadium debates since their earliest days.