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Talk of stadiums puts St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in a bind

This Vikings stadium debate at the Capitol is proving a big headache for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

Mayor Chris Coleman, shown at Saturday's Winter Carnival parade, finds himself -- and St. Paul -- in the middle of competing interests on the Vikings issue.

This Vikings stadium debate at the Capitol is proving a big headache for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who technically, doesn’t even have a horse in the race. He’s had to point out big problems his city would face with the current proposals for a new stadium whether it ends up in either Minneapolis or Arden Hills.

And it’s even more complicated for Coleman because he dearly wants legislators to approve funding for his own “stadium issue” — a new St. Paul Saints ballpark. (Supporters of the Saints plan get apoplectic when someone calls it a stadium.)

Coleman, notes, though, that any assertion linking the Vikings stadium and the Saints ballpark in any deal — such as “Give Minneapolis the Vikings stadium and St. Paul the Saints ballpark” — is way off base, he said. Not an apples-and-apples comparison, he said.

The mayor went to Gov. Mark Dayton this week to push his case against the way current Minneapolis stadium plans are linked to state aid to Target Center; such an arrangement would be a huge blow to St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, which competes with the Minneapolis arena for concerts and other events, he said.

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In an interview Wednesday, he talked more about being in the middle of competing interests on the Vikings issue, and seeing problems all around for his city.

Even before the Minneapolis sites and the Target Center subsidy proposals started getting most of the attention — back when the Arden Hills site in Ramsey County seemed like it had a shot — Coleman was against that proposed financing plan. First, an added county-wide sales tax and then a county-wide food and beverage tax would fall largely and unfairly on St. Paul residents and businesses, he said.

Coleman’s ‘global solution’ flops
At the time, he proposed a state-wide, 2-cents-a-drink tax, to pay for a Vikings stadium, because he considers the team a state-wide asset. It was part of his “global solution” to the stadium/arena issues. His plan essentially called for a new Vikings stadium, one metro area arena (keep Xcel, get rid of Target Center) and a new regional ballpark in downtown St. Paul that would replace the aging Midway Stadium and serve both the minor-league Saints team and many amateur teams.

His phone isn’t ringing off the hook with support for that plan.

The mayor says former MinnPost writer and stadium expert Jay Weiner told him that people claimed to be looking for a global solution, but when presented with one, they pooh-poohed his plan.

Still, Coleman is hopeful that Ramsey County officials will come up with a more palatable financing plan for Arden Hills very soon, now that the Minneapolis plans are plagued by City Council problems and site issues.

“With Ramsey County going back to the drawing board, we’ll see what their plan looks like. I’ve never been opposed to Arden Hills, but have always asked: ‘What’s the right funding?’ And I think it needs to be state-wide,” he said.

Maybe electronic pull-tabs will be the answer, he said.

And he reiterated his concerns about the Minneapolis stadium plans that would include $150 million for Target Center.

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His view: Even with improvements and updating, Target Center will never be as fine a venue as St. Paul’s Xcel; but the improvements would continue the ridiculous system of the two publicly owned metro arenas competing with each other for events. In the process, it would put Xcel at a distinct disadvantage, he said.

(Also on the fairness front, Coleman notes that the then-DFL-led Legislature passed debt relief bills for Xcel Energy Center in 2007 and 2008, but both were vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.)

Regional approach needed
Most other big cities don’t have competing venues, he said.

“Why spend $150 million on something that’s superfluous? That’s not a smart investment,” he said.

As an example on how the competing arenas hurt the cities, he told of a recent sporting event that went out for bid.

“I’m not going to name the event, but Minneapolis undercut Xcel by $300,000 on the bid. So Minneapolis loses and St. Paul loses because the promoter squeezed both cities,” he said.

That brings him back to the regional approach.

He says the Twin Cities needs a regional sports/arena/convention center model, something like the existing regional transportation organization, Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), made up of Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties, which uses a quarter-cent sales tax and a motor vehicle sales tax, for transit projects.

Saints ballpark
Meanwhile, St. Paul’s top priority continues to be getting the Legislature to approve $27 million in bonding for the Saints ballpark in the Lowertown section of downtown.

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The city and the team would also contribute to the project, which would go on the site of the former Gillette plant, just east of the Farmer’s Market.

While the city has been trying to get state funding for years, this year the St. Paul Area Area Chamber of Commerce has taken the lead in promotion and lobbying, and Coleman is hopeful that the extra push will make the difference, even with a Republican majority that has not been particularly friendly to the big (DFL) cities.

“We’ve got to do it this year,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to get going on acquiring the property and starting the cleanup.

“I won’t say a delay will kill the project, but it would definitely be on life support.”

Why? He said costs will go up with a delay, someone else might buy the site and it will delay an opportunity to create new jobs via a business reuse of the old Midway Stadium site.

The Saints ballpark project, he said, meets the traditional bonding standards: It’s a municipal improvement that replaces an old facility; there are local and private matching funds, and it won’t compete with anything in Minneapolis or elsewhere, he said.

Skol, Vikings
Coleman said despite his concerns about the way the stadium debate has unfolded so far, he believes the Vikings are an important Minnesota asset.

“Ask anyone who’s trying to get businesses to move here or attract top workers: The team is an important amenity for the region,” he said.

“But there’s got to be an equitable way to do it,” he said.