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Saints ballpark, Duluth project big winners of state grant

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Saints ballpark
An artist's rendering of a proposed Saint Paul Saints ballpark.
Image courtesy St. Paul Saints

The Saint Paul Saints will get a new ballpark. Duluth can build a downtown office tower. And a proposed light rail line through the southwest Twin Cities suburbs will get the $2 million it needs to keep its bid for federal funding on track.

Gov. Mark Dayton today announced more than $47 million in state grants he says will create 2,000 jobs around the state.

Other winners in today's grant announcement were the cities of Litchfield, Hector, Lonsdal, Hutchinson and Wadena. Redwood and Renville counties also succeeded with a joint application.

But for someone who got to dole out tens of millions of dollars to local development projects, Dayton's tone was somber as he unveiled the list of lucky local governments.

"There's an axiom that when you're given a lemon, make lemonade," Dayton said. "And I would say that this decision here today is the best lemonade possible under the circumstances."

Dayton signed the new grant program into law this year as a compromise with the Legislature, but he considers it a lemon because the state received $288 million worth of requests and had money to fund only a fraction of them. Ninety local governments applied. Nine will get funding. Dayton said he did his best to make sure the funds were awarded fairly and taxpayers got the most for their money.

"They deserve to know these decisions are made with the best expertise possible, as objectively as possible, in a way that serves the best interests of the state," he said.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, scored the top 37 applications based on project readiness, job creation potential and several other criteria. All the projects Dayton funded received top scores, with the exception of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

DEED awarded the Southwest LRT 24 points of a possible 100. It tied for last place among all projects scored because its request for planning money would create relatively few jobs in the immediate term. Dayton did not grant the $14 million the Metropolitan Council requested, but he did set aside $2 million for Southwest light rail.

Regional administrator Pat Born says the Met Council is grateful to get it.

"This keeps our place in line with other competing projects around the country with the 50 percent of the project that we expect to be funded from federal sources," Born said.

He said without the state support, the $1.25 billion proposal could have been delayed indefinitely, but its future is still in doubt. The light rail line will ultimately need more than $100 million in additional state money to keep moving. Dayton has not committed to that, yet, but said he didn't want to see the project derailed. 

The biggest winner of the day, St. Paul, gobbled up more than half the funds available statewide.

"Just put your hands up and say, 'yes!'" said St. Paul Deputy Mayor Paul Williams, who led the cheers. Mayor Chris Coleman is out of the country on vacation.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, promised the state's investment would have a lasting impact.

"This regional ballpark is going to be an asset to St. Paul, to the east metro and to the state of Minnesota for 20, 30, 40 years, and it's anchored here in St. Paul," Kramer said.

The $25 million grant to the city was $2 million less than asked for. City leaders say they will work to cover the shortfall, but have not figured out how, yet.

Saints owner Mike Veeck expects the first pitch to be thrown at the new ballpark in 2015.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem thinks the governor was wrong to use the economic development money to fund a sports stadium. In fact, he was not impressed with any of the projects Dayton decided to fund.

"I don't see anything in here that's really a show-stopper in terms of furthering economic development in the state of Minnesota," Senjem said.

Senjem, who represents Rochester, is disappointed his city's $25 million proposal to renovate and expand its civic center didn't make the cut. He suspects politics played a role in the rankings.

Dayton did pledge to support a number of the losing projects, including Rochester's, in his next bonding bill.

The projects funded include:

• Litchfield, $2.3 million for wastewater infrastructure improvements

• Hector, $1.1 million for wastewater system improvements

• Lonsdale, $1.5 million for street and utilities improvements for a new business park

• Redwood/Renville Solid Waste, $1.9 million for a material recovery facility

• Hutchinson, $763,750 for small business incubator

• Duluth, $8.5 million for downtown development and a public parking ramp

• Wadena, $4.2 million for a public health and wellness facility

• St. Paul, $25 million for the St. Paul Regional Ballpark where the Saints will play

• Metropolitan Council, $2 million for the Southwest Light Rail Transit Line

MPR reporter Dan Kraker contributed to this report from Duluth.