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Target Field: ‘The House That Jerry Bell Willed to Completion’

Jerry Bell
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Of course Jerry Bell was on hand last Saturday for the Gophers game — the first one to be played at Target Field.

Rumor has it that Jerry Bell will throw out the inaugural pitch to christen Target Field on April 12 at the Twins first regular season game. If true, it would be wrong to label that toss the ceremonial first pitch.

Instead, it should be correctly recognized as Bell’s last pitch, a sort of poetic punctuation mark after 15 grueling years of lobbying, cajoling and serving as the iron horse pitchman for Twins owner Carl Pohlad’s stadium dream.

Bell is the rugged-faced, bass-voiced, 68-year-old patient and loyal soldier of the late Pohlad. It was Bell, beginning in 1995, who repeatedly took most of the face-to-face political heat for Pohlad, an often disliked outsider in Minnesota’s business community.

Bell, constant coffee cup in hand, moving calmly from office to office in the Capitol, State Office Building and other seats of government, somehow managed not to make enemies of his own.

“Jerry,” said Dan Kenney, of the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, and former aide to Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat, “never burned any bridges.”

“Jerry Bell is a measure-twice, cut-once type of leader,” said Twins President Dave St. Peter. “He’s a master at keeping his powder dry.”

“If people agreed with him, they got a thank you and a handshake,” said former Sen. Dean Johnson of Willmar, who managed the final Twins vote in the Senate in 2006. “If people didn’t agree with Jerry, they still got a thank you and a handshake. He was able to keep that deep emotion of the issue outside of the relationship.”

How? Why? Because, Bell reasoned, that the lawmaker who voted “No” in 1997 might still be in a decision-making role to vote “Yes” in 2006. Or, a no voter might be a close friend of a yes voter. “You never want to offend somebody,” Bell said.

People and circumstances changed, but not his mission
Over time, he knew, things and people changed, but his mission did not.

“The sports industry is the entertainment industry, and both are in the public acceptance business,” Bell told MinnPost last week. “People have to accept what you’re selling because they don’t need it. It’s not bread and butter. Therefore, you pay attention to what people are saying, and then you have to accommodate them.”

When the sun shines on that first American League game against the Red Sox in 11 days, history might suggest that Target Field be dubbed “The Facility That Opat Funded” because it was the Hennepin County leader who developed the idea for a county-backed stadium tax to take to the Legislature.

Or it could be “The Ballpark That the Pohlads Finished and Fine-Tuned,” what with nearly $200 million of private funding in the stadium.

But, all in all, the preponderance of the evidence shows that the $555 million Target Field is “The House That Jerry Built,” or, perhaps, “The Stadium that Bell Willed to Completion.”

* * *

Sort of like George Washington chopping down cherry trees and Abe Lincoln splitting rails, the legend of T. Geron Bell begins with him mowing lawns of playgrounds at recreation centers from West St. Paul to Apple Valley, a peasant turned lobbyist. Nice image, kind of true, if incompletely so.

Bell was born on the East Side of St. Paul but grew up in North St. Paul. His father was a draftsman for an architectural firm; his mother, a post-World War II 1950s housewife. Bell graduated from North St. Paul High in 1959, two years before the Washington Senators moved to the Twin Cities to become the Minnesota Twins.

After a three-year stint in the Navy, he got work taking care of the parks in North St. Paul while attending the University of Minnesota at night on the G.I. Bill. Thus, the lawn-mowing legend was born. But his early park-and-rec maintenance work morphed into park-and-rec management and Bell’s entrance into the sports facilities and lobbying business. It’s where the dots begin to connect to the lush green grass of Target Field, a lawn that he can gaze at constantly from his new office window in the left field corner of the stadium.

While working day-to-day in parks and playgrounds, he found his interest turning to funding for projects in the Twin Cities’ then-burgeoning suburbs. During the Lyndon Johnson Administration, Bell saw his first pieces of legislation passed in West St. Paul and then Apple Valley for parks, ice rinks and swimming pools.

Before long, it was time to move on and up. He jumped from being in the field to working for the fledgling Metropolitan Council. Along the way, he also won a seat on the North St. Paul School Board, so he understood the realities of being an elected official.

Bell and Metrodome longtime ‘partners’
By 1977, representing the Met Council at the Legislature, Bell helped pass a park bonding bill for $62 million. That was the same year that the first Metrodome piece of legislation passed, a bill, originally, with deep Met Council participation. Soon after, he was assigned to work on the downtown stadium project.

Since then, Jerry Bell and the Metrodome have been in various stages of a relationship. At the Met Council, he worked on fixing the stadium’s funding mechanism after a metro-wide tax was repealed, and the burden fell on the city of Minneapolis. He would also work on another controversial Dome matter: When former Twins owner Calvin Griffith refused to sign a 30-year lease, Bell and others devised an “escape clause” that eventually allowed Griffith to threaten to move the team. That clause triggered the sale of the Twins in 1984 to Carl Pohlad.

Bell would go on to become the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns and operates and the Dome. And, by 1987, after dealing with Pohlad on a new lease, Bell switched sides, from landlord of the Minnesota Twins to president of the ball club and the Dome’s tenant, from public service to the private sector.

Watering the field on the first weekend
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
It took 15 years of efforts led by Jerry Bell to produce the lush green grass of Target Field.

In 2002, the stadium effort became his single-minded responsibility, and he became president of Twins Sports Inc., the umbrella organization of the team. For the first time in 33 years, with the Twins out of there, Bell and the Metrodome have no relationship.

Stability? Bell has lived in the same house in North St. Paul for more than three decades. He’s been married for 47 years. He lobbied for Target Field over the course of two decades, nay, over the span of two centuries. “Persistent” is one of the adjectives that Dave St. Peter uses in describing Bell.

Nothing, no proposed user fee, no flip-flopping legislator, no disinterested governor could seemingly bring him to the brink of complete frustration. Oh, when the first major Twins bill was defeated in 1997, he was disappointed. (Little did he know his efforts would need another decade.) When there was talk in 2001 that Major League Baseball might “contract” and eliminate the Twins, he was at a low point, St. Peter observed. (Bell disputes some history that declares that Pohlad “volunteered” for contraction, although he acknowledges Pohlad “never discouraged the conversation.”)

In 2004, he was close to simply quitting the lobbying; he felt he had lost his effectiveness. In 2006, he only went forward once more after gaining assurances from legislative leaders — Dean Johnson, Matt Entenza, Steve Sviggum and Dick Day — at one meeting at the Governor’s Residence that they were poised to see a Twins ballpark bill pass.

“I had gotten to know those people,” Bell said. “And when they said they would do something, they did it. I would consider all of those people friends.”

But, Bell said, there was always perspective, always the knowledge that a stadium campaign is just business. In August 1991, his 17-year-old granddaughter, Tonya, suffering from depression, committed suicide.

“There is nothing worse than that, nothing,” Bell said. “Nothing that ever happened here [with the Twins] ever came close to that.”

* * *

The effort to get to this moment, to the opening of Target Field, began in 1994, when Carl Pohlad first told the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission that he wanted a new ballpark. Bell’s burst onto the scene as the voice and face of the stadium campaign began on Sept. 11, 1995, when he called the Metrodome “economically obsolete,” and said the Twins needed, among other things: “a significant increase in quality seats and improved sight lines”; exclusive control over suites, in-stadium advertising, concessions and the ability to develop stadium clubs; and parking revenue.

Keeping his eyes on the financial prize, Bell won all of those things for Target Field, except the parking revenue.

His narrative was tweaked along the way, from the early-1990s notion that a ballpark provides massive “economic impact” to a state to the ultimate reality that a ballpark was necessary to preserve Major League Baseball in Minnesota. But that, really, was Bell’s message all along. “More than anything else, we need to ensure that Major League Baseball stays in Minnesota. For a long, long time,” Bell said in 1995.

So, he worked at it. Over time, divisions became apparent. Progressives viewed public financing for a ballpark as an opportunity cost that would negatively affect other, more significant social needs. Conservatives considered any new taxes anathema. Bell wandered around and through those bookends.

Bell worked in the middle of the road
“You got no chance to get the extremists,” Bell said, “so you try to cobble together enough votes that are more middle of the road.”

Dean Johnson, the former state senator, invoked military slang when he remembered only once when he saw Bell’s “pucker factor” — his fear and sphincter tightening — rise to desperate levels. Johnson, a brigadier general in the Army National Guard, said that moment occurred when a conference committee was formed in the final days leading up to the Twins’ final push in 2006. There was one member of the committee who was a vociferous stadium critic.

“Jerry came into my office, sat down with a cup of coffee in his hand and he looked at me like I had just traded Joe Mauer,” Johnson remembered. “He said, ‘I have one last request. We need to have a different alignment on that committee.’ “

Johnson told Bell to hang in there. He did. Soon after, the Twins ballpark bill passed in the House and, then, as the sun rose on Sunday, May 21, 2006, Johnson banged a few heads and got two final votes to put it over the top in the Senate, 34-32. Johnson remembers looking into the Senate gallery’s balcony, offering a thumbs-up to Bell sitting there, and Bell smiling broadly.

All that remained were four years of thousands of details, as Bell dived into matters as minute as the colors of carpeting to issues as tricky as upping the Pohlads’ investment in the building. He also worked with the city and county officials on transit and other development-related matters.

Which leads to this weekend, when the first Twins exhibition games will be played — and a certain crescendo that builds toward April 12, the official Opening Day. That’s when, perhaps, Bell will heave that ceremonial first toss, that final pitch for this veteran professional pitcher.

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

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 04/01/2010 - 09:17 am.

    Jay, Jerry Bell richly deserves the kudos you give him as does Mike Opat. However one unsung hero in the Target Field debate is Shane from the blog Greet Machine. Although a mere blogger, Greet Machine became THE place for ballpark discussions. I bet even Jerry Bell checked it out (or had someone check it out for him). Click my name or the link below to read more about Shane’s and Greet Machine’s ballpark efforts.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/01/2010 - 01:54 pm.

    It’s the taxpayers of Hennepin County who are footing the bill for the Twins Stadium. Maybe this is a time for humility and expressions of gratitude on the part of Twins officials to the people who made their new facility possible.

  3. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 04/01/2010 - 03:57 pm.

    What an amazing article here. Wikipedia defines fascism as an authoritarian which seeks to “organize on corporatist perspectives, values, and systems….” In this article, we find absolutely no air between Jerry Bell the public servant and Jerry Bell the lobbyist for the billionaire Pohlad family. In oder words, the state (or Hennepin County taxpayers) exists for the profit of the private (Pohlad) corporation. As for the “authoritarian” angle, I would ask if anyone remembers that referendum that Hennepin County voters approved this billion-dollar outlay of public funds. You can’t remember that, since we never had such a legally required vote. Instead, the “authorities” decided what would be best for the rest of us.

    What a waste of public funds!

  4. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 04/01/2010 - 04:42 pm.

    Whatever you may think of the value of funding sports stadiums, comparing it to fascism is silly and does not lend credence to your point of view.

    For what feels like the 1000-th time: read the tax law. A referendum is not required if a special law is passed exempting a local tax from the referendum. One was. If you feel so strongly that this was done illegally, why didn’t you, as a Hennepin County taxpayer, file a lawsuit to have the tax invalidated?

    More simply, if the good people of Hennepin County were as upset about this as the anti-stadium crowd would have us believe, perhaps at least one of the commissioners who supported the stadium would have been voted out of office — yet none were.

    Intelligent people can disagree over how public funds should be spent. I can certainly see and appreciate the argument that this was not the best use of public funds. But to suggest this was somehow the product of an authoritarian and/or fascist regime does not further the public discourse. I dump that in the same trash can as claims that Obama is a socialist fascist (still not sure how that’s possible), that Bush was the second coming of Hitler, etc.

  5. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 04/02/2010 - 12:40 am.

    Hi, Dave. What I did was to copy a definition of fascism, i.e. a form of government that exists for the benefit of corporations. I understand that you do not like my using the word, but do you disagree that the tax in question benefits the Pohlad family, or do you disagree with the definition itself.

    Certainly we can differ on how to spend our money… roads or bridges, schools or hospitals, etc. But my point is a little different in that I see a more general trend. Of late, quite a lot of my tax money is going to pay big bonuses to private execs. A lot of education funding is now going to pay corporations for standardized tests and special programs. Wars are fought to protect oil interests, which are owned by corporations. Healthcare “reform” ends up having the effect of taxing the many in order to provide huge new infusions of cash to private insurance companies. A billion of our tax money went to enrich the Pohlad family.

    You may not like the word “fascism.” Would you prefer to call it “privatizing government”? My point is that a lot of resources are being shifted from the poor and the middle class to the very wealthiest among us. I abhor this reverse Robin Hood use of tax money, and I see the Carl Pohlad stadium as a prime example, both quite visible and quite expensive. Ultimately, such a concentration of public wealth with such a few private individuals will stifle and even doom our society. Considering all of our pressing societal needs, it is a tragic waste.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/02/2010 - 05:07 pm.

    As a veteran quibbler myself, I always assume the Merriam Webster dictionary as authoritative. They define fascism as follows:

    “1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition
    “2 : a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control ”

    I didn’t care much for the political process that resulted in the stadium. It seemed to me a case of forum shopping where stadium advocates after a long and fruitless search finally found a politically entity composed of political dead enders who nevertheless had just enough authority to get the stadium through. Placing the burden of the stadium on Hennepin County taxpayers while at the same time removing a valuable piece of property from the Hennepin County real estate tax rolls, a double whammy from which our economy will not easily recover, was clearly bad policy, if not bad politics. But it was, in my view at least, the product of a democratic process. The deal was signed off on, by elected if politically obscure officials, and all of those officials have been re-elected since they made their deal.

  7. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 04/02/2010 - 08:32 pm.

    Mr. Underwood, I defer to the post of Mr. Foster and the definition of fascism as supplied by Webster.

    This is not fascism. This is democracy, and this is what happens in a democracy: sometimes, your representatives make choices you disagree with. End of story. There is no grand authoritarian scheme out there, nor is Target Field evidence of one.

    Do I agree with everything government does? No. Do I think education dollars could be better spent? Sure. Do I think we need to spend more money on infrastructure? Yep. Is that evidence of fascism? Nope.

    Oh, and the the health care bill — the insurance companies will do fine, yes, but did you see the giant hits large companies are taking? Verizon just posted a billion dollar tax hit to help pay for it, and millions of poor people will get assistance. On balance, it is silly to suggest this bill helps the rich get richer, when it in fact is just the opposite.

    That isn’t a criticism of the health care bill. I personally have no problem with it (although the question of cost containment isn’t even close to being resolved). But on the whole, I don’t think corporate America is celebrating this one.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/03/2010 - 10:10 am.

    Opat and Bell betrayed the public in order to set up a wellfare program for the Pohlads. They put this deal together in secret meetings that the other Henn. Co. board members weren’t even aware of. You can celebrate them if you want but not for their public service in this instance, clearly this was government for the wealthy not government for the people; who would have voted it down had they had the chance (as Charlie has pointed out). And Hiram is correct in reminding us that it’s the people of Henn Co. that are paying for this, basically against their will. I’m surprised Wiener didn’t point out the money for the Libraries?

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/03/2010 - 10:34 am.

    Just because something, in this case the stadium deal, takes place within a democratic framework doesn’t make it a legitimate product of democratic process. Process can be used perversely and when that happens it’s an example of perverted democracy. The process that Hiram describes in his post is the epitome of perverse democracy. I think to defend it as an example of democracy illegitimate. There something to be said for the difference between the spirit and the letter of a political system. In sports however the spirit is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is winning. In that regard there’s a certain symmetry to this stadium deal being a product of a manipulated political process.

    Once can say that people get the government they deserve, but that doesn’t mean one can infer consent from electoral outcomes. Default is not consent. Most people don’t know who the Henn. Co. board is, or what they do. Voting for them is like voting for judges. The fact that they were not unelected after spearheading the stadium deal doesn’t imply that voters were O.K. with the deal. The obscurity of this group explains it success, not it’s popularity. I think the stadium deal is much more accurately characterized as a product of a corrupted political system, not as an example of a democratic system, even if it is technically a democratic system. When you focus on technicalities instead of outcome you get bad policy. And if you keep making bad policy you can eventually damage democracy.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/04/2010 - 07:01 am.

    The democratic process doesn’t guarantee good results. There is little doubt in my mind that placing the burden of the stadium upon Hennepin County taxpayers along with requiring them to pay for it was bad policy, independent really of whether the stadium itself should have been built.

    I don’t think the suggestion that the stadium deal was the product of a corruption is entirely wrong. But corruption is part of the price of freedom we have chosen to pay by allowing money to take the role in politics it does.

  11. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 04/04/2010 - 09:32 am.

    I am confused by the suggestion that because people don’t know who the Hennepin County commissioners are — a highly suspect charge with no evidentiary support — that this was therefore a product of a corrupt system. This seems like a bit of revisionist history. The process behind the funding of Target Field was not done in the dark, as suggested. Rather, it was reported on in widely available publications, multiple public hearings were held, and the state legislature and governor spoke about the process in public. Those against the stadium made their voices heard, and quite loudly. Nick Coleman ran an entire series of columns in the Star Tribune suggesting (without explanation) that the process was illegal (although he was never quite able to explain how the process was illegal, as the process was, in fact, perfectly legal). I’m not sure how it could have been more transparent.

    When people talk of corruption, I think along the lines of bribery. Again, no evidence of that here. Just because you don’t like the result of democracy does not mean the process was corrupt.

    If there is evidence of bribery, if there is evidence that this was done illegally — I’d like to see it, because, to date, those claiming these things to be true have provided zero evidence. Please share this information if it does exist.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/04/2010 - 11:25 pm.

    I think it’s safe to assume that a population, most of whom cannot name their elected officials or explain the difference between the house and the senate; is not familiar with Henn Co. board, it’s function, or it’s members. But that’s just me I guess, I have no data to support that claim.

    Let me be clear, when I speak of corruption I refer to a corrupted system, not an illegal enterprise. This is legalized corruption. Yes, there were many public hearing, but it is now a matter of history that Bell and Opat hatched this stadium in closed meetings, meeting the other boards members had no knowledge of. This deal was an end run around legislation that required a referendum. The referendum had to be eliminated because everyone knew the people of Minnesota would not support a stadium with taxes if given a choice. This did not require under the table bribes, but there’s a reason the Governor has coffee with people like Ziggy Wolf to discuss stadiums, and won’t return my calls to discuss health insurance, I’m not a billionaire. It what was good for billionaires was always good for that wouldn’t be a problem. The alignment of monied interests and government is perfectly legal, but not accidental, and frequently subversive. It distorts priorities and misdirects public resources. I think we need to start talking about corruption, and really looking at the way our government has been subverted. When the only major policy accomplishment of the last decade has been a stadium for a billionaire, while we’ve faced one budget crises after another, we have a problem.

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