Gopher stadium bill passes House easily

The proposed stadium
An artist's sketch of the proposed on-campus Gophers stadium.
Sketch courtesy of the University of Minnesota

The House vote showed strong support for the on-campus football stadium, in what could be the first of three stadium bills considered this session.

Supporters of the proposal, like Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, say the U of M stadium package would bring Big Ten football back to campus.

"We can get back part of the spirit of the University of Minnesota to place a football stadium on campus, where it belongs," Abrams said.

The new stadium would be built on a parking lot across the street from the university's basketball and hockey arenas. It's about two blocks from the former Memorial Stadium, which was demolished after the Gophers football team moved to the Metrodome in 1982.

We can get back part of the spirit of the University of Minnesota to place a football stadium on campus, where it belongs.

The $249 million project would have 50,000 seats, corporate suites and other amenities. The U of M says half the project's costs would be paid for by student fees, parking revenues and private donations. That includes a $35 million dollar naming rights deal with TCF Bank.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, voted against the proposal because he said the stadium should be named after the nation's war dead, not a bank.

"My fear with this naming agreement is that we are selling out our long term values for a short term gain," said Mahoney. "I can't vote for this, and I have been a Gopher fan since I can remember."

Supporters of the plan said they considered Mahoney's recommendation, but said several veterans groups gave the naming rights deal the go ahead.

Under the agreement, state taxpayers wpuld be responsible for $124 million plus interest to fund the stadium. In exchange, the U of M will turn over 2,800 acres of land in Dakota County to the state.

Some questioned the land swap, because the university would still be allowed to conduct research on the land. Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, says he'd prefer to have the state pay a smaller contribution and let the U continue to own the land.

"I don't think we should have to pay them in this case for some title to land that we still won't -- in any normal sense -- own, when they should just be working with us to give us the opportunity to use the land anyway," said Knoblach. But Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, said the land swap is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was one of a large group of members who defeated Knoblach's attempt to remove the deal from the bill.

"You want to know how valuable this land is? It's priceless -- that's how valuable it is. Once it's gone, it's gone forever," said Ozment.

The University of Minnesota's Richard Pfutzenreuter says he will now focus his attention on the Senate, where the bill is still being heard in committee. He says he's hopeful it will pass that body and can be sent to Gov. Pawlenty, who has expressed support for it.

"The House is an important signal, and this large vote is a tremendous signal of very broad -- and I think deep -- support in the state," said Pfutzenreuter.

Pfutzenreuter says the university isn't in favor of combining the U of M stadium bill with stadium legislation for the Vikings and Twins. Several senators indicated they're considering that option, especially since the Vikings and Twins are also working to get out of the Metrodome.

Rep. Andy Westerberg, R-Blaine, urged his colleagues on the House floor to think beyond just one stadium for the U of M, and consider two more stadiums for the Twins and Vikings.

"Even though this stadium is going to be a tremendous benefit for our state, I want you to think about the economic value of the other two stadiums that we'll have to consider, hopefully, yet this year," said Westerberg.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum warned against combining all three stadiums into one bill, saying the popular Gophers plan could sink under the weight of the other two.

"If you try to load up this bill, they all die," Sviggum said.

Sviggum says he is open to holding votes on the other two stadiums in separate votes before the session ends next month.

Some lawmakers say all of the stadium talk is making them weary. Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Lino Lakes, has been a vocal critic of any taxpayer money for stadiums. He is one of several members who questioned why the Legislature was voting on stadiums instead of addressing other matters.

"I think it's time for the Legislature to realize that we have a lot higher priorities -- funding transportation, funding health care, funding education -- than funding sports in the state of Minnesota," said Krinkie.

The cost of the three stadiums would top $1.5 billion.