St. Paul gives go-ahead to Saints stadium, closes funding gap

Stadium opponent Greg Gopeland urged the City Council to give up on a Lowertown Ballpark plan and later said he'd make an effort to put the plan to voters on this fall's ballot. (MPR Photo/Tim Nelson)
Stadium opponent Greg Gopeland urged the City Council to give up on a Lowertown Ballpark plan and later said he'd make an effort to put the plan to voters on this fall's ballot. (MPR Photo/Tim Nelson)

The St. Paul City Council reluctantly signed off on a more expensive deal for the Lowertown ballpark tonight.  The newly-approved plan costs 16 percent more than the stadium's initial estimate.

The city has to pick up most of the nearly $9 million cost overrun, with a small contribution from the St. Paul Saints, the minor league baseball team that will move to Lowertown from Midway stadium near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The deal will require the city to borrow and pay back $17 million in stadium bonds.

"We've been bled enough on this deal," said Ward 6 council member Dan Bostrom.

But he joined five colleagues in the unanimous vote for the revised terms of the stadium deal, clearing the way for the city to sell the bonds and for construction to start on the 7,000 seat ballpark. It's expected to open in 2015.

Newly appointed council member Nick Khaliq said his recent experience working in City Hall and downtown bolstered the argument for a new stadium in his mind.

Nick Khaliq
Nick Khaliq (MPR Photo/Tim Nelson)

"One of the most compelling things that struck me, is that downtown St. Paul is in a little bit of trouble. Macy's closed. And you know, we need a shot in the arm... Looking at the possible pay-off, and I think it's a good chance, these people know their business, that this would be a shot for the city of St. Paul. And hopefully it will encourage others to invest downtown, which would spread out into the community."

The approval came after a two-hour long public hearing that featured nearly a dozen opponents to the plan, laying out a wide-ranging case against the deal.

"We have a police lab that's a disgrace, and a health inspection department that's being taken over by the state," said Tom Goldstein. "Oppose this amendment. Get out in the community and talk to citizens and figure out what the city's priorities should be. This isn't one of them."

Residents around the site of the proposed stadium, near the St. Paul Farmer's Market, expressed fears that the tailgating, party atmosphere at Midway stadium couldn't be successfully transplanted downtown -- and maybe shouldn't be.

Justin Busch told the council the stadium push was an effort to "turn Lowertown into the sports and drinking district of St. Paul," and that threatened previous efforts to make it an arts district. He also objected to subsidizing the Saints: "Every resident of Lowertown, every resident of St. Paul knows, that there is no impact so great, no cost so high that the city council will weary of shoveling public money into what are essentially private pockets for this."

Even council members wondered whether the plan would work. Bostrom suggested the Saints' initial success in the city's Midway district in the early 1990s came because the team offered outdoor baseball, in contrast to the Twins, who played in the Metrodome at the time.

He asked Parks and Recreation director Mike Hahm if the city was betting on a losing proposition, now that Target Field sits on the other end of the Green Line light rail.

"Is the traffic going to go both ways on the light rail, or is if its all going to head over there, and we're just going to be sitting here with this thing," Bostrom said. "That's what really troubles me about this thing."

In the end, though, council members took assurances from the administration of Mayor Chris Coleman that there weren't any more surprises looming in the project and there were enough safeguards to protect taxpayers financially, at least for the short term, if the baseball team failed. They also got assurances from the parks director that the city wasn't going to shutter any neighborhood recreation centers while paying for a new pro sports venue.

Hahm says the council's approval clears the way for final design work and negotiation of a final construction contract and guaranteed cost with Ryan Cos., the company building the stadium. He said demolition of the Diamond Products factory at the site should be finished in about four months, and some construction could start by the end of the year.

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