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Can the Twin Cities support two minor league baseball teams?

That’s the big question after a proposal to build a $42 million, 8,500-capacity stadium in Shakopee near Canterbury Park that would be home to a team called the Metro Millers was unveiled this week. 

Millers stadium
A southeast birdseye rendering of the proposed Millers stadium in Shakopee.

Are the St. Paul Saints about to face local competition in the independent baseball racket?

That depends how seriously one takes the proposal to build a $42 million, 8,500-capacity stadium in Shakopee near Canterbury Park, a project promoted this week by former Shakopee mayor and current DFL state Rep. Brad Tabke. It will be home to a team called the Metro Millers, the nickname recalling the old Minneapolis Millers, the Class AAA affiliate of the New York Giants and Boston Red Sox that folded in 1960 with the arrival of the Twins. 

If “Metro Millers” sounds familiar, it’s because a similar project proposed for Burnsville in 2008 fell apart. That club was supposed to play in the now-defunct Northern League, the original home of the current Saints. “I think there was a little thing called the recession that sunk that one,” Tabke said. Now it’s back, with different investors and a different approach: All private funding, some of it grassroots. 

Tabke owns a consulting firm that partners with real estate developers on projects; he said he joined the stadium effort in 2016 after his mayoral term expired.  How much the group has raised, Tabke won’t reveal — enough, he said, to fund the stadium design and proceed with a second stage of fundraising. 

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This week Tabke announced the club will use the state’s MNVest platform, a crowdfunding vehicle for small business, to seek from $1 million to $1.5 million in equity investment. Individual contribution levels range from $1,000 to $25,000, and potential investors will get their money back if the initiative raises less than $600,000. (As of Wednesday morning the Millers had raised $6,000 through MNvest, according to the club’s web site.) 

The group is negotiating with multiple landowners for parcels near Canterbury, not far from ValleyFair and Mystic Lake Casino. Tabke hopes to announce the site in six to eight weeks, break ground next summer and begin play in 2021.

“With any commercial real estate project, there’s always a long way to go and it’s never a done deal until it’s a done deal,” he said. “We feel good about where we’re at today, and feel good about the next steps of the projects.”

Canterbury Park spokesman Jeff Maday said track CEO and President Randy Sampson met with the group several times over the last two years. Sampson supports the stadium proposal, which could coexist nicely with its Canterbury Commons mixed-use development currently under construction. That project features a 120-room hotel, apartments and almost 100,000 square feet of retail space.  

“Canterbury is not a partner or sponsor in the stadium effort but we do encourage exciting ideas like this as we redevelop our land,” Maday wrote in an email. “Should they reach the point where they are financially ready to move forward we would welcome the opportunity to be involved.”

If this actually happens, is the Twin Cities Metro big enough to support two independent minor-league baseball teams, as well as the major-league Twins? 

“A great question,” said Derek Sharrer, the Saints’ executive vice president and general manager. “And I don’t know if I have the answer to it.”

Five years removed from their aging first home at Midway Stadium, the Saints stand as independent ball’s crown jewel and one of the most successful minor league franchises at any level. Last year the Saints led the American Association in attendance for the fifth consecutive year and ranked eighth among all independent and affiliated minor-league teams, averaging 8,060 per game. Only seven Class AAA clubs averaged more. The Saints played to 112% capacity at Lowertown’s gleaming CHS Field, tops among the roughly 350 minor-league clubs coast to coast.  (By the way: CHS Field cost $63 million, built with mostly public money.) 

Years ago the Saints drew fans mainly from St. Paul and points east. That’s no longer the case. Sharrer said just over 45 percent of Saints tickets are purchased in the West Metro, with 25 percent coming from Shakopee, Chaska, Chanhassen, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Prior Lake, Burnsville and Lakeville. So a Southwest Metro competitor could cut into Saints business unless it focused on the U.S. Highway 169 corridor going south, a largely untapped area from Shakopee to Mankato.

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“I’m not sure there is enough room in the market for another minor-league franchise,” Sharrer said. “But if it’s done right, it could potentially work. It has to be done in a way where the teams weren’t working against each other. There’s a lot that would go into that.

“We would truly be supportive of something that’s better for baseball in the Twin Cities. That’s always been our position as potential projects have come into the news. The idea that a historic rivalry can be rekindled is also very intriguing, and to some extent exciting. Whether or not the market is saturated with baseball has got to be a concern.”

There’s also the matter of territorial rights. Tabke said the Millers hope to join the Saints in American Association, reviving the long-ago streetcar rivalry between the clubs’ 20th-century incarnations.

But A.A. rules prohibit teams from setting up shop within 30 miles of each other, and some sites in Shakopee fall within that distance from CHS Field. In that case the Millers would need permission from the Saints to build, A.A. Commissioner Josh Schaub said. Territorial rights would not apply if the Millers join a different league, or if the Saints land in affiliated ball as part of Major League Baseball’s controversial proposal to eliminate dozens of minor-league teams. (Sharrer said MLB has yet to contact the Saints about it.) The next closest independent league to Minnesota, the Frontier League, features teams in the Midwest, Northeast and Canada, the nearest in Illinois.

“We haven’t been shy about saying we’d like to be in the American Association because there’s a great rivalry and history between the Saints and the Millers that we think will be a wonderful thing for the region to fire up again,” Tabke said. “But we’re open to making sure we make the best decision.”