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Late-inning rally mounted to use Gillette building as base of Saints ballpark

Downtown gallery owner Bill Hosko has been trying for months to convince city officials to reuse the solid concrete building as a base for a multi-use ballpark. City officials balk.

The Gillette building, on the far east end of downtown and across from the Farmers Market, is scheduled to be torn down in June, to prepare the site for the new Saints ballpark.
Courtesy of the Saint Paul Saints

It’s late in the game, Bill Hosko knows, but he’s continuing his efforts to convince St. Paul officials that the Lowertown ballpark — the future home of the St. Paul Saints minor- league baseball team — would be much better if the baseball field is built out from the existing Gillette building.

Not many have listened, even though Hosko’s plan, outlined in a YouTube video, would help solve a critical parking issue in the area and would provide activity in the ballpark far beyond the few months of the baseball season.

The Gillette building, on the far east end of downtown and across from the Farmers Market, is scheduled to be torn down in June, to prepare the site for the new ballpark. The team would play there starting in the 2015 season.

City officials have outright rejected the idea of keeping the building, moving ahead instead with their design for a cozy 7,000-seat baseball park on the site.

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Hosko hasn’t given up, though, and now seems to have acquired a key ally: St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the ballpark area, which includes the nearby the booming Lowertown area and its lofts and restaurants and bars.

Hosko actually ran against Thune in the 2011 council race. The two didn’t interact much during the campaign, but they recently met on the ballpark issue at Thune’s art gallery. (It’s interesting that both own galleries, the Hosko Gallery and Thune’s Saint Paul Gallery.)

And at a community meeting Wednesday night, Thune said he supports much of Hosko’s plan, particularly the parking aspect.

By keeping the huge Gillette building as part of the ballpark complex, Hosko says the basement of the building can be used for parking. A second level might also be used for parking.

(He’d also like to see a model railroad museum put into the building, along with two stories of commercial space. And cutting away part of the building would provide already-built space for restrooms, concessions and some seating.)

Thune said today he finds many parts of Hosko’s concept “very exciting,” particularly the parking plan.

“There’s a huge parking crunch in Lowertown; I’ve been hearing for years that they’re short of parking and now we’re losing even more parking with the ballpark, plus they think they’re going to get 3,500 more cars downtown for each game,” Thune said.

“It intrigues me to use bottom level of the building to hold 500 cars [Hosko says it could be 600]. That, in itself, would resolve many of the parking issues and it’s amazing that [the mayor’s office has] dismissed the notion,” Thune said.

He also notes that he called for a citizens’ design task force to be part of the ballpark deal, but it appears that the main design has already been agreed upon, and that all the task force is being asked is “things like what color paint should they use.”

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Said Thune:

“I think it’s very prudent to stop, back up and start from assumption that we need to re-examine how we design this.”

Still, Thune said he knows the project is well on its way and will be hard to amend at this point.

The city expended much political capital in getting $25 million in state bonding money for the ballpark. The city and the Saints team will provide the rest of the $54 million budgeted for the project.

City officials have argued that keeping the Gillette building in the plans would add more expense, but Hosko says the parking areas could be privatized and thus keep the cost on track.

Joe Campbell, a spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman, said cost is just one factor in sticking to the plan.

“We’ve put in about $1.3 million already on the design,” he said. Keeping the building to put in parking could add $12 million to the $54 million cost, and while Hosko has talked about privatizing that part of the plan, Campbell said he doubts anyone would make that investment.

Other problems with the proposal, Campbell said, include lighting for the Hosko concept, which could affect flight patterns at nearby Holman Field and could cause light pollution in neighboring areas. He said there’s also concern about disability access and pedestrian access from Broadway.

And there’s much talk, back and forth, about orienting home plate so the setting sun doesn’t shine in a batter’s eye. Hosko said it’s not a problem, and his orientation makes it better for outfielders and second basemen.

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Thune said he thinks there’s a chance of turning back the clock on this project and incorporating the building into the design. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think there was hope,” he said.

He said he’s urging residents to pepper the mayor’s office with calls and letters to try to turn the tide.

“People have to start calling. It’s very hard to stop a railroad train like this heading down the tracks,” Thune said.