Coleman invites Major League Soccer to kick a ball around St. Paul

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Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, left, welcomed Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire to the top level of professional soccer during a March news conference at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Updated: 6 p.m. | Posted: 12:22 p.m.

If Major League Soccer succeeds in expanding to Minnesota, the "only viable path" now is a new stadium in St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman said Thursday. Coleman announced that he has invited a Major League Soccer executive to look at an empty parcel on the northeast corner of Snelling Avenue and Interstate Hwy. 94 as a possible stadium site.

The push from St. Paul comes just days after Minneapolis missed a key deadline to finalize a plan for a new stadium in that city.

But now that St. Paul is apparently in the game, some in the capital city are reluctant to get their hopes up. The big question for city and state officials is whether Major League Soccer is seriously interested in St. Paul or using the city to obtain leverage with Minneapolis.

In a conference call with reporters today, Coleman said he is not naive.

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"I go into all these negotiations with eyes wide open and have made it very clear to the ownership group that I have no intentions of just being used as a pawn in a negotiation across the river," the mayor said. "I'm confident that these are very serious conversations, and hopefully, we can get something done."

The state's minor league soccer owner, former UnitedHealthcare CEO Dr. Bill McGuire, had planned to build a stadium in downtown Minneapolis, but he and his partners have not won the tax breaks they say are necessary to make the project profitable. A Minneapolis deadline of July 1 came and went, with no plan in place.

Coleman said he would consider waiving property taxes for the stadium, and said others on the St. Paul City Council are also supportive.

The largely vacant 15-acre tract near I-94, which includes the empty site of a former Metro Transit bus barn, is accessible by the freeway and light rail service. It has not generated taxes for more than 50 years, so cutting the stadium some tax breaks may be palatable for city leaders. Coleman said he's also reached out to St. Paul legislators to help build the case for that.

State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said she doesn't know how she feels about giving the stadium a free pass on property taxes.

"That's a hard decision for me," said Moran, who represents the area that includes the vacant property.

Moran also has questions about putting a stadium near an already car-congested intersection at University Avenue. But she's excited about what a stadium could do to revitalize the area.

"That is really just a blank area right now," she said. "I personally believe it would be a great location for a soccer stadium. I believe it would bring some economic development to that part of the district in a community that's needed."

City planners and civic boosters have dreamed for years of redeveloping the long-languishing site. It sits near the Green Line light rail route and is close to colleges and universities, as well as immigrant communities already stoked about soccer.

But another state lawmaker isn't convinced that it is the best location for a stadium.

State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, still has her heart set on the Minneapolis site.

"That was the perfect place in Minneapolis," Hausman said. "It really does bring together the kinds of activities in that part of town, all of which the energy of each complements the other — between Target Field, Target Center and even the farmers market."

Hausman said she hopes Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges will more aggressively pursue the soccer stadium. Hodges has said her staff has begun meeting to evaluate the city's options.

In St. Paul, Coleman has been quiet on the stadium issue the past few weeks. He said he wanted to make sure he didn't interfere with any conversations between the league and Minneapolis. But a conversation with MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott, who grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Oakdale, convinced him that St. Paul had a shot.

"Yesterday was the first opportunity I've had to speak to him personally where he confirmed that interest and expressed that interest in coming to the city to look around," Coleman said Thursday.

Coleman said Abbott also told him that the window of time to bring soccer to Minnesota is narrowing quickly. League officials have said they would want a team to be ready to play as early as 2017, although the team could also take the field in Minnesota in 2018.

MPR News' Tim Nelson contributed to this report.