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St. Paul City Council votes on asking state for money to build ballpark

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Cramped locker room
St. Paul Saints coach T.J. Wiesner and players prepare to take the field for a game at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, Minn. Sunday, June 10, 2012. The team is hoping to secure financing for a new stadium which would feature upgraded amenities, including a more spacious and appointed locker room.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The city council votes today to apply for $27 million in state money to help build a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints.

The city says the project will create hundreds of jobs, and provide a catalyst for economic growth. But it would also drain more than half the money in an experimental fund designed to spur business development around the state.

Marcus Lattimer's never been to a Saints game before, but watching the Saints play the Sioux Falls Fighting Pheasants at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, he's already acting like a super-fan.

"That's what I kind of hear you got to do, "Lattimer said. 

Lattimer supports public funding for a new stadium, but another game attendee, Dan Horning, also came out to watch and he is opposed.

"I just don't think the taxpayers ought to pay for it, he said.

Horning is sore about the public money that will go into the new Minnesota Vikings stadium. Before that, the Minnesota Twins got a new ballpark. And before that, St. Paul built an arena to lure professional hockey back to the state.

That's precisely the problem, said Saints owner Mike Veeck. Having grown accustomed to state-of-the-art amenities at Target Field and the Xcel Energy Center, Minnesotans won't put up with the port-a-potties at Midway Stadium.

"People don't use them anymore, because they've been spoiled by these two buildings within seven miles of us either way."

The Saints have pledged $10 million toward building a new ballpark. That would cover less than a quarter of its $54-million price tag. Asked why taxpayers should cover the rest, Veeck responds with characteristic frankness.

"It will certainly line the greedy owner's pockets, but we're also the only team that has pledged already to leave the prices exactly the same as Midway when we go into the new building."

TRADING SPACES

The new building, if the plan becomes reality, would be located in downtown St. Paul next to the farmer's market in Lowertown.

Port Authority President Louie Jambois speaks from in front of the disused factory that stands there today.

"It was used as a manufacturing building for Gillette razor blades, Suave shampoo, a wide variety of products," Jambois said. "It employed a lot of [people] here in St. Paul, but it's been abandoned now for 10 years."

The Port Authority has agreed to buy the building for about $2.3 million. Assuming the rest of the money for the ballpark becomes available, the Port Authority would give the property to the city and redevelop the land where Midway stadium stands today. Jambois says the Midway site is a much better place for a factory.

"That site should be home to at least 300 new jobs, whereas this site is home to zero jobs. So, we think this swap makes perfect sense," he said.

Creating jobs is the key to this proposal. St. Paul is applying for $27 million dollars from a new state grant program intended to stimulate job growth. The ballpark request would devour more than half the money in that fund.

WHAT'S A STADIUM WORTH?

Numerous studies have shown publicly financed stadiums have negligible economic impact. But a study published last year showed a correlation between minor league ballparks and modest income increases.

University of San Francisco Professor Nola Agha, who conducted the research, said while minor league baseball is associated with small economic gains, it doesn't necessarily mean public subsidies make sense.

"There's almost never a complete return on investment. Minor league stadiums can easily cost $50 million and when you think about the new spending that's generated, it's going to be incredibly small."

In addition to funding from the state, the city of St. Paul has pledged another $17 million to the project. It's unclear how the city will raise the money.

In response to a public records request, St. Paul gave MPR News a one-page financing draft to show where the city's share might come from. It includes the land swap, plus $8.5 million in borrowing, $1.5 million from a neighborhood improvement program and another $4 million in unspecified city funds. Mayor Chris Coleman said the proposal would have little or no effect on property taxes, although he stresses the details are still being worked out.

"By the time, hopefully, the commissioner makes his final decision about whether or not the state will support this, we'll have a clear package in mind of exactly how this will be," Coleman said. "But obviously we're always mindful of property tax impacts and we'll minimize them as much as possible."

Even though the local financing plan remains sketchy, today's city council vote to apply for the state grant will likely be unanimous.