As it turns out, St. Paul wasn’t being used.
Reflecting some recent history involving professional sports franchises — or maybe just the lot in life for second cities like St. Paul — the cynical speculation had been that the owners of a new Major League Soccer team were only flirting with St. Paul in order to get the attention of Minneapolis officials.
All along, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that wasn’t the case. And Friday, he demonstrated that he was right. In an event space that just might be a casualty of redevelopment spurred by a new stadium, the team’s owners made it formal.
Bill McGuire, current owner of the lower division Minnesota United, said he intends to build a soccer-specific stadium in St. Paul at the site known as the bus barn. McGuire said he expects the stadium be finished in time for the 2018 MLS season.
It was welcome news to city officials and team supporters, but still a bit anti-climactic. When MLS Commissioner Don Garber stood with Coleman at Mears Park a month ago, it was all but assured that the team would play in St. Paul. “It seems like it really makes sense to me,” Garber said of what is expected to be the eventual site of a stadium for Minnesota United, near Snelling Avenue and I-94. He then said the team wasn’t talking to Minneapolis at all, and described the talks with St. Paul as finalizing “deal points.”
That was quite a reversal from Garber’s previous appearance in the Twin Cities, on March 25. Back then, he was announcing that Minneapolis would be the host at a site near the Farmers Market.
But two things worked against the Minneapolis option. First, shortly after it was named as the site, local politicians vented their built-up resentment about professional team owners making demands for taxpayer dollars. It didn’t matter that McGuire was asking for a lot less than existing teams. He was asking for something, which set him up as a ripe target.
The second was vocal opposition to any tax subsidy by Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges coupled with the timidity of politicians who were supportive but chose to let the above-referenced venting run its course. By the time they got publicly involved, it was too late.
McGuire had already looked at the bus barn site in 2013 when investigating stadium sites. When he floated the idea again in May, Coleman pounced. And since the team wasn’t asking for very much from the city — the owners would pay for the land, and they would build and operate the stadium in return for a sales tax exemption on construction and a property tax exemption on the land — it wasn’t a heavy lift for Coleman. The land was already off the tax rolls — it’s owned by the Met Council — and the sales tax forgiveness was a legislative issue that he only had to pledge to endorse.
On Friday, the team and St. Paul officials tried to recreate some of the festive scene that accompanied that Minneapolis announcement in March, with mixed results. They did have chanting team supporters, of course. But there was no Garber this time. No soccer stars like Landon Donovan. No sports TV celebrities. But they did have something that couldn’t be mustered in Minneapolis, nearly the entire elected leadership of the area: city council members, Ramsey County commissioners, state legislators — even a message of support from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.
The team will be owned by McGuire along with owners of the Minnesota Twins; Timberwolves and Lynx; as well as Wendy Carlson Nelson and Erica Binger.
Just a week ago, St. Paul officials indicated how confident they were that the city was the winner. They said they were making some demands — what the city calls principles — for the construction of a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium at I-94 and Snelling Avenue. They weren’t especially onerous demands, and they fall in line with what the owners seemed willing to do. But at least the city isn’t saying it will do anything to get the stadium.
City finance director Todd Hurley outlined some of those principles to the city council earlier this month after the council approved a joint powers agreement to facilitate negotiations by the city, the St. Paul Port Authority and the Met Council for the site. “I don’t think it’s any secret that the administration has had several discussions with the owners of the Minnesota United soccer team over the last several months,” Hurley said.
It was during these discussions that the city outlined what it wants to see in any deal. The team would pay 100 percent of the cost of lease payments to Met Council and 100 percent of construction costs. While the city or some other public entity would technically own the estimated $120 million stadium once it is finished, the city would require the team to handle all operations and expenses of running it. That would include cost overruns on construction, operations and maintenance costs and the costs of any repairs or updates.
Hurley said the city also wants the team to allow public uses of the stadium, create an affordable ticket program and help fund public and youth soccer programs.
Just because the stadium would be owned by a public entity, it wouldn’t automatically be exempt from property taxes. The legislature would have to approve an exemption. And Hurley said the stadium, like other tax-exempt property, would have to pay the city’s right of way tax assessments.
Council Member Dan Bostrom said he is concerned about the city being on the hook for infrastructure improvements around the stadium. He wants an agreement that taxpayers will not be required to pay for any of these costs. Council President Russ Stark said a resolution passed in August requires no city money for the stadium, but it did not address infrastructure.
“The reality is, anything developed on that site is going to need some streets,” Stark said. “That’s a discussion we’re going to need to have to try to get that work done.” Coleman said Friday that studies done in anticipation of the Green Line opening anticipated the need for infrastructure work to spur redevelopment. That would be needed whether the stadium was built or not, he said. And Coleman said he expects half of the fans will take transit to games.
Coleman is working with council members on forming a citizens advisory committee to be involved in decision making about what the stadium site would look like. The committee would also help shape the expected redevelopment of 25 acres of privately owned land between the stadium site and University Avenue. The hopes of the city is that the stadium will spur long-desired redevelopment on a parcel that is not only on the Green Line, but next to the region’s first arterial bus rapid transit route — the A Line — which is set to open in early spring.