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Minnesota Wild taps former state budget director as lobbyist. Is a public ask for Xcel Energy Center renovations next? 

The team acknowledges that it wants to renovate the 23-year-old downtown arena but wouldn’t respond directly to questions about any state involvement.

The Winnipeg Jet playing the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Apr 11, 2023.
Xcel Energy Center seats just under 18,000 for hockey, is owned by the city of St. Paul and operated by the Wild's parent company, Minnesota Sports & Entertainment.
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Minnesota Wild preparing to ask state lawmakers for financial help to renovate their St. Paul home?

The team acknowledges that it wants to renovate the 23-year-old downtown arena but wouldn’t respond directly to questions about any state involvement. But its officials have discussed renovations with a key lawmaker and met last month with Gov. Tim Walz in his Capitol office. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also attended the meeting.

“They talked about the arena and renovations to the arena,” said Walz communications director Teddy Tschann of the Oct. 24 meeting. “It’s safe to say they are exploring if there’s a state role, but we haven’t actually received a request from them.”

Perhaps the strongest indication of the timing of such a request came late last month when the team contracted with Walz’s former budget chief to lobby for the ownership. The lobbyist registration of James Schowalter, who resigned as Minnesota Management and Budget commissioner Aug. 14, came the same week that Wild owner Craig Leipold and team president and CEO Matt Majka met with Carter and Walz. 

Schowalter’s lobbying registration lists the subjects he will work on for the team as sports facilities and capital bonding. He reports that his duties will involve lobbying state government, the Legislature and local government.

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Fans weigh in on arena upgrades

The National Hockey League franchise has been surveying fans about a renovated arena, often referred to by fans as “The X.”

“The Minnesota Wild have retained CAA ICON, an internationally recognized sports management consulting firm, to evaluate potential updates to Xcel Energy Center,” states the introduction to the survey. “Topics in the survey include your relationship with the team (if any), seating preferences, and desired arena improvements/amenities, among other topics.”

CAA ICON is a Denver-based company that has worked on more than 50 sports facilities and public assembly projects, including the newest NHL arena in Seattle and the proposed Las Vegas stadium for the Oakland Athletics.

Among the questions Wild fans were asked on the survey: the ability to watch games from the concourse, improved concessions and restrooms and better parking. The survey also asked whether fans would like “new social gathering spaces/standing-room-only spaces/bars.”

Xcel Energy Center renovation survey

Xcel Energy Center renovation survey

Xcel Energy Center renovation survey

Aaron Sickman, a team spokesperson, issued a statement when asked about proposed renovations and whether there would be a request for state financial involvement.

“It’s been almost 25 years since Xcel Energy Center was built, so we are assessing our facilities and seeking feedback from users to determine what upgrades may be needed in the coming years,” the statement said. “From concerts to hockey games, we know that the ways visitors experience our facilities have changed since our arena was built in 2000, and we look forward to hearing from people through the survey.”

Sickman did not respond to questions about whether the team will be asking for state or city help with paying for any renovations.

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“We don’t have anything to share other than (the) statement I sent to you on Friday,” Sickman said via email.

Carter was equally vague.

“The X has served as a staple entertainment and event space, bringing millions of people to Saint Paul for over 20 years,” he said in a statement released by his staff. “As the building ages, we are committed to working with the Wild to envision and ensure the arena’s long-term success.”

State Sen. Sandy Pappas
State Sen. Sandy Pappas
DFL Sen. Sandra Pappas represents part of St. Paul and is the chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee that writes the bills that decides how much the state should borrow for construction projects and which projects receive funding. Her committee is finishing up a tour of the state visiting proposed projects.

Pappas said she spoke with team officials a few months ago about what she described as a complete remodel of the arena, but said her impression was that the project, and any request of the state, was further in the future than 2024.

“There’s a lot I don’t know about what they want to do and how much money they want,” Pappas said. “Obviously I saw that Schowalter had moved there, too, so I was suspicious. I was wondering what that was about.”

Did state financial involvement come up? Not specifically, Pappas said.

“I think I can assume that, since the state did help them with financing 20-odd years ago,” she said. “They were in the beginning stages and I didn’t get a lot of details but I didn’t get the clear impression that they wanted something in ‘24. But maybe that was just my wishful thinking.”

Besides Schowalter, two other veteran lobbyists also work for what is called Minnesota Hockey Ventures Group, but both have worked for the team for more than a decade. Maureen Shaver and Roger Moe registered to represent the group in 2011.

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One of the ‘finest arenas in the world’

The arena seats just under 18,000 for hockey, is owned by the city of St. Paul and operated by the Wild’s parent company, Minnesota Sports & Entertainment. That entity also manages Roy Wilkins auditorium and the St. Paul RiverCentre.

The construction of Xcel Energy Center was instrumental in the winning of an NHL expansion franchise to replace the Minnesota North Stars after the team moved to Dallas in 1993. That team played in the Met Center in Bloomington, which was torn down in 1994.

According to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, the state approved an interest-free loan of $65 million for the arena in 1998. The legislation provided that the loan repayment amount would fall to $48 million once the new team signed lease agreements to play in the arena. St. Paul provided $65 million through the issuance of  revenue bonds to be repaid with a new half-cent sales tax. It also benefits from a tax increment financing district created in 2014 that devotes some of the taxes collected around the arena to the project.

Team owners paid $35 million of original $165 million arena construction costs.

In 1999, the state forgave $17 million of the original loan amount. In 2013, legislation was passed that forgave the remainder of the state loan valued at $28.75 million at the time. The payments that would have gone to that debt were instead directed toward arena improvements the city and team agreed on.

According to the city, there is $39.7 million in city bond debt still outstanding as of Monday. In 2019, the city and the team extended the arena lease through 2035 and lowered the annual rent payment from $9 million to $4 million, helped by a refinancing of the construction bonds at a lower interest rate.

The first game of the expansion Minnesota Wild was played in the new arena on October 11, 2000. In addition to the NHL team, the arena hosts concerts, national and regional athletic events and was the site of the 2008 Republican National Convention. 

The arena’s homepage describes the building this way: “Xcel Energy Center is regarded as one of the finest arenas in the world. The one-of-a-kind, multi-purpose facility is home to more than 150 sporting and entertainment events and approximately 1.7 million visitors each year.”

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The website Stadium Journey ranked NHL arenas this year and placed Xcel at 14th of 32.

“Overall, the Xcel Energy Center may be aging a bit, but it’s still one of the best places you can go to see a professional hockey game, let alone a sporting event,” the ranking stated. “Friendly fans, good food, and very easy access make this arena second to none.”

Compared to other NHL facilities, the St. Paul arena is middle aged. According to an assessment by NoVa Caps, a site devoted to Washington Capitals fans, there are 20 NHL arenas older than Xcel. But with the exception of Madison Square Garden and the arena in Calgary, most are of similar age with 22 being built between 1993 and 2004.

Xcel has seen improvements over the years. New seats were installed and other improvements were completed in 2016, including expanded and redesigned bar spaces.

There has also been speculation about the future of the other professional arena in the Twin Cities. Target Center in Minneapolis is the second oldest arena in the National Basketball Association but received an 18-month, $145 million renovation in 2017. New owners Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore have said they would want a new arena in the future. The current lease expires in 2035 but includes the ability to buyout the lease for $50 million.