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

A batch of recently released documents offer more behind-the-scenes details as to just how aggressive Mayor Chris Coleman and his senior staff were in luring the team to St. Paul.

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

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 the 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.