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A pitch for the pitch: St. Paul officials go all in wooing Major League Soccer

How badly does St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman want to have a new soccer stadium within his city? Very badly, he said — which puts him in sharp contrast to most officials in Minneapolis.

Mayor Chris Coleman speaking to reporters at CHS Field on Tuesday as MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott looks on.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

No, no one is suggesting that a proposed expansion franchise in Major League Soccer play its games — even temporarily — in the new Lowertown baseball ballpark built for the St. Paul Saints.

It’s 8,000 seating capacity is too small and besides, the baseball and soccer seasons largely coincide, which would make a mess of the grass field.  

Instead, there were different reasons the new stadium was the site Tuesday for closed-door meetings and then a short press conference with Mayor Chris Coleman and Major League Soccer Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott. According to Coleman, the new ballpark is an example of the can-do attitude that marks the capital city.

“We want to give them a sense of what we’re capable of as a city,” Coleman said on the concourse overlooking the field. “We built a fantastic facility for a fan-friendly experience and understand how a stadium like this, when it’s done as well as CHS has been done, it usually adds to the vibrancy of the city.”

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The meetings were followed by a tour of the site Coleman is trying to sell — a former bus barn still owned by Metro Transit between I-94 and University on Snelling Avenue. Coleman said he thinks it can be a catalyst for redevelopment in the area, which abuts a strip mall and some underdeveloped land. The city has been pushing for redevelopment there for several years. Despite the opening of the Green Line on University, however, those efforts have yielded little progress.

How badly does Coleman want to have the stadium within his city? Very badly, he said. Which puts him in sharp contrast to most elected officials in Minneapolis.

“I got to sit out here last night on a beautiful August night as the Saints broke their single-season attendance record and watched those crowds pour out into this neighborhood, get on the light rail line afterwards, and just create a vitality that is shocking and wonderful to see,” he said. “We need to have that same type of investment in the Midway area, so I am very excited and very hopeful that we can get this project done.”

Coleman repeated his assertion that one of two tax breaks asked by Minnesota United — the lower-level soccer team that now plays in Blaine — would not be hard for St. Paul. Keeping the new stadium off the property tax rolls would only continue its current government-exempt status. He said he thinks the increase in property taxes paid on adjoining property if it is finally redeveloped would more than make up for any loss of taxes on the stadium parcel.

For his part, Abbott was low-key, calling his visit an exploratory tour. He brushed aside questions about timing, deadlines and whether Minneapolis was still in the running. Yet he also downplayed any talk of a competition between the two cities as well as minimizing suggestions — some call them threats — that the league would give the 24th franchise to cities such as St. Louis or Sacramento if neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul comes through with what the team owners are asking for.

Abbott said the league has been talking with those cities but was not in “active negotiations.”

“We’re contemplating expansion beyond 24 teams,” Abbott said, “We just don’t have the timetable for that expansion yet. I would anticipate sometime later this year or early next year, once we have the 24 solidified, that we’ll talk about that.”

The tour came six weeks after Abbott went on Patrick Reusse’s 1500 ESPN radio show to say that a July 1 deadline for action on a Minneapolis stadium was real and had passed. He then said the league was intrigued with St. Paul.

The franchise was announced in March, and Minnesota United unveiled a stadium plan a few weeks later. It would buy the land near the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and it would pay all construction costs of an 18,500-seat soccer-specific stadium. What it wanted from government was an exemption from sales taxes on construction and the property tax break. That was rebuffed by Mayor Betsy Hodges and didn’t get much traction at the state Capitol either, though Gov. Mark Dayton said it was a significantly smaller request than other professional teams had made — successfully.

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Minneapolis now has a staff/City Council work group that has been meeting privately with plans to provide an update to the full council in September and a final report in December. It is likely that any plan — if it involves tax breaks — will need approval by the state Legislature, which doesn’t meet until March.

Abbott said the March announcement noted that the league thinks the Twin Cities is a great market, but it conditioned the franchise on getting a soccer-specific stadium in place. When that wasn’t completed, Abbott said the league wanted to look into St. Paul. Of the bus-barn location, Abbott said: “It has the opportunity, I think, to really be a tremendous site for a new MLS stadium.”

Abbott lived for some time in the St. Paul area, graduating from Tartan High School in Oakdale. While he was not planning any visits or meetings in Minneapolis, he said it was “premature to speculate” about whether the league would be willing to wait to have the final pieces of a deal approved by the Legislature in March. If it is, that would mean that St. Paul would have been given nine months to complete a stadium deal while Minneapolis was only given 14 weeks.

Coleman said he thinks he would be given the chance to take what he called a “very simple ask” to the Legislature next year — continued tax-exempt status for the 10-acre parcel. “In exchange we get a stadium that is built through the investment of the team owners and we have an opportunity to be catalytic in the redevelopment of that site.”

“Now I know there’s no such thing as a simple request at the state Legislature, but the fact of the matter is I think that people would understand that this is the kind of sports stadium deal that we have hoped for all along,” Coleman continued. He said he is confident the Legislature will agree.

Council Member Chris Tolbert said earlier in the day that some on the council would like the league and the team to give St. Paul exclusive negotiating rights for a period of time to assure that the city won’t be used as a foil to get a stadium deal signed in Minneapolis. Coleman didn’t address the suggestion directly, but said he thought MLS was operating in good faith. 

“I am absolutely 100 percent certain of one thing, and that’s that we’re not being used as a foil,” Coleman said. “I’ve been very, very clear. I have no interest in being a pawn or a bargaining chip against a better deal over in Minneapolis. That’s not what’s happening here. I’m very confident of that.”