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How did St. Paul score pro soccer’s newest franchise? It wasn't by playing Minnesota nice

A few thousand soccer fans attended Friday's announcement at CHS Field.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A few thousand soccer fans attended Friday's announcement at CHS Field.

On Friday, at St. Paul’s CHS Field, a few thousand soccer fans fought through rush hour traffic, light rail disruptions and the threat of rain to hear what they’d been waiting for for nearly two years. Not only would Major League Soccer finally award a franchise to the Twin Cities, but that the team would begin play in 2017.

Those fans also heard another bit of welcome news: that the league had relented and agreed to let the franchise keep the name it has been using in the lower-level North American Soccer League: Minnesota United. This came despite there already being two teams using the “United” name in MLS.

“We are United,” McGuire said to applause and chants from supporter groups. 

Amid the announcements, what might be the biggest piece of news got somewhat lost. The team was moving ahead with stadium construction, and not waiting for the next session of Minnesota Legislature to adopt a property tax exemption. The failure of talks by Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders to agree to a special session this summer was not, it turned out, the disaster to the stadium plans that some had feared. Ownership thinks the tax breaks will come eventually, and have decided to move ahead on that belief.

The politicians who took the stage gave credit to one another for making the team — and the stadium project — come together. 

But St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman also gave much of the credit to his senior city staff. “I could spend the rest of the evening naming people,” Coleman said. “But here’s what I want to say about that. A lot of people give bad raps to people who are public employees. But if you knew how hard the city of St. Paul worked to make this happen, they would never say a bad word about city employees ever again.”

Left unsaid, but revealed in a newly released set of documents, was how much of that hard work was done even as city officials were publicly pledging not to interfere with the team's first choice for a home: Minneapolis.

'Now is the time'

On the morning of April 15, 2015, officials in the city of St. Paul received two messages on the same topic from two seemingly unrelated sources. 

In one, St. Paul resident Rob Spence sent a note to Mayor Chris Coleman via the city’s website: “Not sure if you are are following this soccer stadium story, but it seems that Mayor (Betsy) Hodges in Minneapolis is not interested in building the fully privately funded facility in Minneapolis,” wrote Spence, who is a soccer fan and board member of the youth club St. Paul Blackhawks. “I know it might be a stretch, but if there was an opportunity to jump in for the steal on this, now is the time. I know it may be pie-in-the-sky, but this may be a huge opportunity,”

Jonathan Sage-Martinson
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jonathan Sage-Martinson

The same morning, city economic development director Jonathan Sage-Martinson received an email from a developer asking a similar question. “I am tracking the soccer stadium story and I am wondering if the City of Saint Paul & Ramsey County would have any interest in trying to lure the project to the east side of town?” wrote Herb Tousley, chief development officer of the Exeter Group. “I just wanted to throw out the idea, which may be crazy.” 

The two messages were just the first of many emails outlining St. Paul’s successful attempt to lure the team and its stadium away from Minneapolis. The messages are part of a set of recently released documents that offer further behind-the-scenes details as to just how eager Coleman and his senior staff were to get the team — to the point of discussing how the city might head off a plan in the Legislature to build a stadium in Minneapolis. (Though some of the documents were made available in response to a Minnesota Data Practices Act request made by MinnPost in July 2015, most were released by St. Paul just last week.)

All of those efforts started months before an artificial deadline of July 1 set by MLS for a Minneapolis stadium plan to come together — and amid public statements by Coleman that he would not interfere in Minneapolis’ talks with the team.

Not a new idea

McGuire, the current owner of the North American Soccer League team Minnesota United, had first been in talks with St. Paul two years earlier, in 2013, about building a soccer-specific stadium in the city.

At the time, McGuire was seeking information on several sites, including the RK Midway site — also known as the "bus barn" site — that will eventually house the team’s new stadium. At the time, the talks did not lead to serious negotiations.

When the issue came up two years later, amid Minneapolis' talks with the team, neither Tousley nor Spence suggested the RK Midway site. Spence proposed a site at the corner of University and Marion avenues, a location that had been tossed around by McGuire in 2013. Tousley suggested acreage at the intersection of Highway 280 and University Avenue.

Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire fielding questions from reporters
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire fielding questions from reporters following Friday's announcement.

While the sites proposed by Tousley and Spence were a few miles west and a few miles east of  the eventual winner, both seem to have spurred city officials and Coleman to begin taking a look at jumping in for the steal.

Sage-Martinson fired off an email to Coleman, attributing the idea to “a developer” and Council Member Chris Tolbert. “I understand that you met with the owners a year or more ago and sent a pretty clear message,” Sage-Martinson wrote to the mayor. Was he still interested in getting the team?

That was the question that elicited Coleman’s now well-known response, also sent on April 15, 2015: “hell yeah.”

On a parallel track, mayoral aide Nancy Holman forwarded Spence’s message to Coleman's office. “I don’t know what the Mayor is thinking about the soccer stadium,” she said, and went on to suggest a conversation about the issue with Coleman's deputy mayor, chief of staff and parks director. 

'There may be room for us to insert ourselves'

Things happened rapidly after that.

On May 7, 2015, the city liaison with state government, J.D. Burton, reported to Coleman’s chief of staff Dana Bailey on “some intel” he’d gathered on the Minneapolis proposal at the Legislature. The Senate DFL had discussed the plan to build a stadium near the Minneapolis Farmers Market and reported “no support.” McGuire’s lobbyists claimed they had enough votes to override a Hodges veto of stadium support at the city council, but “there may be room for us to insert ourselves into the mix if we want to propose an alternative site.”

Such an effort would likely lead the team to “leverage our interest against MPLS, however,” Burton wrote.

Things could move quickly, Burton warned, if legislative leadership suddenly got behind the Minneapolis plan. And St. Paul had no allies on the tax committee “meaning it would be tough to stop it if it made it that far.”

“So, we still need to know if CBC [Coleman] wants to slow down the trains on this in MPLS, or if he wants to make a play for the stadium in Saint Paul,” Burton wrote.

Mayor Chris Coleman
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Mayor Chris Coleman

Bailey responded that the staff should keep an eye on things at the Capitol but that she’d gathered her own intelligence revealing that the Minneapolis project had “zero support from Minneapolis and an equal amount from the governor’s office.” As such, she didn’t want to “waste a bunch of time trying to defeat something that isn’t even going to be put forward.” 

“Let’s not get into trouble with Minneapolis by trying to kill something that isn’t likely to happen,” Bailey wrote. 

Those discussions starkly contradict public statements made on behalf of Coleman at the time. On May 26 — two weeks after the mayor's chief of staff discussed how to “kill something” in Minneapolis —  communications director Tonya Tennessen told MinnPost: “The mayor is not interested in interfering with conversations currently underway in Minneapolis.” 

When pushed to say whether he had been approached by the team or rebuffed those advances, Tennessen wrote: “We’re not commenting on soccer…”

But Tennessen had considered a more transparent response to those questions. In an email exchange with Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann, Tennessen proposed acknowledging that “the mayor reads the news like everyone else and understands Bill McGuire’s hope is to build the stadium in Minneapolis.” Coleman, however, had been asked about the project by soccer fans, including those who attended the opening of CHS Field for the St. Paul Saints independent league baseball team. “His answer then and my answer now? Our attention is on the stadium we just built,” Tennessen suggested as a response, calling speculation about a soccer stadium “simply speculation at this point and we won’t comment on hypotheticals.”

That message wasn’t sent. But it was less than accurate, as was her actual response. The city finance staff had, by then, already prepared a memo outlining what St. Paul could offer the team, including help assembling the land; providing city funds to build infrastructure and parking; rezoning of the property; and support in securing a construction sales tax and property tax exemption from the Legislature. The latter was the request that led Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges to withhold her support for a plan to put the team in Minneapolis, despite the team's promise to pay all construction costs.

City of St. Paul legal and lobbying staff had also by then reviewed tax break legislation drafted by McGuire’s lawyers. On May 18, eight days before Tennessen said Coleman wasn’t going to interfere with Minneapolis' efforts, Coleman’s scheduler sent a note to top staff notifying them that Coleman had spoken with a Minneapolis attorney working with McGuire and the team, Sam Kaplan, and invited him to a meeting at the mayor's office. 

The meeting was set for May 21. Also attending: Bill McGuire. “Required attendees” from the city staff were Coleman's deputy mayor, chief of staff, economic development director, parks director and finance director.

After that meeting, McGuire exchanged emails with Beckmann, Coleman's deputy mayor. McGuire went into some detail about his negotiations with RK Midway owner Rick Birdoff about the site. “Urgency seems to be lacking on their end, but we have advised them that seeing this piece now is essential,” McGuire wrote, ending with congratulations for the successful opening of CHS Field.

Beckmann, in return, informed McGuire of rumors of a rival bidder for the bus barn site. Of the CHS opening, Beckmann — in a not especially subtle sales pitch — called CHS “a great testament to the big things people can accomplish when there is a vision and determination to get things done!” She then suggested that future discussions about the stadium be conducted by phone, not via email.

An 'informal' meeting?

In June, after MinnPost requested documents related to the city’s efforts to land the team and the stadium, Tennessen told both MinnPost and the Pioneer Press that while Coleman continued with his non-interference stance, he did meet with McGuire the previous month.

At the time, the meetings were termed “informal and broad,” and Tennessen said the team and city would meet again if talks in Minneapolis broke down. 

Yet the notion that St. Paul was not interfering was becoming increasingly implausible, even for those who worked for Coleman. At one point, Bailey suggested that someone call Hodges chief of staff John Stiles. “I know we’ve said we wanted a stadium in St. Paul but would not interfere with Mpls negotiations,” Bailey wrote. “I think this takes it a step past that.”

While city emails show that the staff remained active throughout, Coleman felt comfortable being more public after the artificial July 1 deadline for action on the Minneapolis plan came and went. On July 9, he held a telephone press conference to say that while he didn’t want to interfere with Minneapolis, he wanted to assure that the team did not go to another state and that his city was “the only viable path” for the league to locate a team in the state.

He also said that conversations with team were general and that no details were discussed, although emails released last week suggest that the's city offer package was prepared by staff prior to that meeting.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
MLS Commissioner Don Garber answering questions following Friday's event at CHS Field.

Notably, much of Coleman’s interplay with staff on the messaging for the press conference came not via his city email account but through his wife’s email at her real estate office.

By the end of July, the city had a concrete proposal prepared — both for what it would do for the team and what it expected in return. MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott visited the city in mid-August 2015, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber followed in September.

Finally, in October, at a pep-rally near the stadium site, McGuire made it official — his new team would play in St. Paul, not Minneapolis, thanks in part to Coleman’s work that began in earnest with the receipt emails from a constituent and a developer on April 15, 2015.

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Comments (15)

History

Another tale of St. Paul fighting desperately to get that which Minneapolis doesn't want. There are many such stories in the history of the two cities.

What Minneapolis Really Didn't Want

Was to make the football stadium look bad. They had sold soccer as part of the attraction of building a Vikings stadium, going as far as to get a five-year exclusive window to put the MLS team there, without ever having consulted MLS first. Now, MLS was willing to go into a football stadium in Atlanta, but there were two problems in Minneapolis:

1) The Vikings stadium plans never really factored MLS into the design, and
2) Nobody likes Zygi Wilf and MLS's ownership board didn't want him

Wilf, the City and the State calculated that they could more or less make MLS come to the site without having involved the league in the decisions. They calculated wrong, as the league has reached a point where it has enough choices that if a MNUFC proposal in a new venue didn't work out, the league would have just moved on from the market entirely.

But from Minneapolis's viewpoint, building a soccer stadium would have exposed themselves as dupes in the football process, letting themselves be sold a team that was never realistic. From their political point of view, at least by the time the soccer stadium gets going, the football stadium will be a fact of life and people will probably have gotten over their issues with how it was funded and sold.

Excellent analysis

Yes, the city tried to soften the US Bank debacle by claiming it was a "two-fer"--as if getting a soccer franchise would somehow justify a $1.1 billion stadium expenditure of which the city and state are paying far more than half when you include the 30 years of bond payments, tax forgiveness on property, etc.

I wonder if thirty years from now people will look back and wonder how a city could have been so insane to allow $1 billion to be diverted into a stadium that is so over the top it puts Minneapolis in the running with Dubai for ridiculous real estate projects. Or whether our obsession with sports will be even more out of control then that the only thing the budget will cover is police, fire, and stadium building.

Stadium funding is a zero sum game, and Minneapolis will pay the price. We just won't hear about it in the media because all cities are structured to benefit the money crowd that feeds at the public trough and "loves" professional sports paid for by the taxpayers. Imagine if Minneapolis had built a $1 billion homeless shelter the size of US Bank Stadium? Or a metro-wide fiber optic network in which everyone had free access to high speed internet? The hue and cry from the business community that championed this "wonderful" stadium would have been deafening.

Far better that we make sure the Vikings get an obscenely-overpriced glass monument than we question how incredibly shortsighted and cynical our priorities are in the metro.

Thankfully, there are likely no more stadiums that Minneapolis will "lose" to St. Paul. But I hear the magnificent Palace Theater project--another public-private venture in which the public pays and the private gets the revenue--is $1 million over budget and will require another diversion of city funds to cover the shortfall

Yep, St. Paul really outmaneuvered Minneapolis on this one. We are so lucky this is coming to the Midway....

Lucky

Yup, we are really lucky. The stadium will be great for the Midway. Can't wait to watch soccer there

The story is most remarkable

for the fact that it lays bare the duplicity of city officials during the entire process. "Public hearings and public sentiment be damned, we're building this stadium!"

Remarkably inaccurate comment.

I was at the St. Paul City Council meeting where they voted on whether to support the project with infrastructure spending. Citizens were allowed to make comments for or against the stadium. 5 spoke against. Around 30 spoke in favor. Just one example at gauging the public sentiment, but more reliable than reading comments on news websites.

Remarkably subjective perspective

Don't know what hearing this was Rob--a year ago? Three week ago, five St. Paul residents spoke against the stadium in the 15 minutes given them, while team owner Bill McGuire and Rick Birdoff of RK Midway pontificated for an hour and a half and answered many questions. (The supporters like you were all attending a soccer game in Minneapolis.) Of course, the City Council would never dream of posing questions to an opponent of public funding or openly probe the shameful lack of planning; that would mean they'd have to acknowledge how incredibly lax and fast-tracked the entire process has been.

But you don't care about that Rob, since you had the distinction of making a suggestion to the mayor about location for a stadium that helped focus attention on the Midway. Pretty heady stuff when the full resources of the city get behind a random idea, but it's also what leads to outcomes like this where the only thing we're guaranteed is a stadium surrounded by parking lots. Nobody is going to build a hotel on spec because of a 20-event per year facility, and even Birdoff himself acknowledges that office towers won't get built anytime soon, in complete contradiction to the city's claims and what appears on the Snelling-Midway master development plan.

Last time I checked, retirees are not looking to live in condos next to a stadium with a view of the freeway. But maybe the Feds will find some money to build more high rises for newly-arrived immigrants to the U.S. who usually have little choice about housing options.

No question that a soccer stadium is coming to the Midway. Let's just not pretend the "public" process was anything more than lip service paid to something that was a foregone conclusion. If that wasn't the case, the city council would have adopted at least some of the recommendations brought forward by the city's own community task force--but it did not. The so-called community benefits agreement resolution approved by the City Council last week is meaningless because it requires nothing of either the team or RK Midway other than they consider doing something for the neighborhood out of the goodness of their hearts. Any leverage the city had over this project was jettisoned the minute they reached a deal in which the public became responsible for the cleanup of the Bus Barn site and then turned over the development rights for the 1.3 acres of prime SW corner space to RK Midway free of charge.

Council hearings about the stadium were public charades in which the outcome was known the moment the mayor began talking soccer stadium more than a year ago. Vacuums in leadership lead to that kind of outcome.

Whatever.

Since we've already circled this block a few times, I know you'll consider my tired and rehashed rebuttals to your tired and rehashed points to be less than compelling, so I'll spare us both the effort.
But, 450+ words two days after the article ran and isn't even on the front page any longer... I'll give you credit for effort.

Well deserved

I congratulate St. Paul on their maneuvering for the stadium. It makes me concerned as a Minneapolitan about the next big projects - hopefully we have the political savvy to win them. I'm specifically thinking of Bus Rapid Transit in the city. I hope we give up our dreams of streetcars and get some BRT like St. Paul has on Snelling and will have on West 7th.

The next two BRT lines are

The next two BRT lines are planned for Minneapolis (Chicago-Fremont and Penn Ave N), so you don't need to worry.

Naming Names

If Coleman had started naming people he had to thank he'd have to start with Betsy Hodges and that may have gotten ackward.

However if Minneapolis ends up with. $15 minimum wage the team will be really happy to be in St Paul and they might get company sooner vs later as others relocate across the river.

The public hearings

...were a joke.

It really does seem that Mayor Coleman is out of touch with the people who will be directly affected by this soccer stadium development deal--and I'm not talking about the rabid soccer fans from Blaine.

From the very start this "plan" has received strong opposition from area residents, but at every turn that opposition has been treated with either mild curiosity or open disdain in favor of what seems to be officials' personal opinion. "St. Paul is going to have a soccer stadium," Coleman has intoned, on many occasions--but whose mandate is he expressing? Certainly not the many constituents directly affected by stadium development plans.

Accountability and transparency are key. We need more exemplary reporting like this.

False

It's kind of sad that St. Paul residents who oppose, well, basically everything, assume that everyone else feels the same way. I am extremely excited for the stadium, and my friends and neighbors feel the same way. My mayor and counsel member represented this constituent well in supporting the stadium.

Where is the evidence?

Where is the evidence about strong opposition from area residents? I just haven't seen it. The same handful of people who actively oppose the stadium are the only opponents who show up at public meetings. That's not evidence of strong opposition.

I live a few blocks from the stadium site. At our block's National Night Out block party I made a point of asking people what they felt about the stadium, and also asked a neighborhood council official about opposition.

Not a single neighbor at our block party expressed opposition to the stadium. Some people were indifferent. Some people had concerns about parking. The majority feeling was that people were happy that the shopping center/bus barn site was going to be cleaned up/renewed, and some said they were definitely looking forward to it and would be attending games.

The neighborhood council person said there were concerns expressed by people who showed up at public meetings, but it wasn't an outpouring of opposition, and usually always came from the same handful of people. I just don't see evidence of strong opposition.

I agree that the whole process needed more transparency, but I don't think that would have had much impact on the level of opposition.

Lets Not Forget ...

.... that the St Paul location was a near perfect location. It had mostly unused space, it had near perfect transportation options, it had nearby businesses that would benefit. So St Paul hardball should be viewed from the easy sell context