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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Twins Latest Stadium Proposal Strikes Out
By Tom Goldstein

 

Editor's note: Over the years I submitted many op-ed pieces to the local newspapers in opposition to public funding for a Twins stadium, but none were ever published. This is one from 2005. (Others can be found online at EFQ's website. www.efqreview.com.)

 

For the past eight years I have promoted the concept of a community-driven process that would help the Twins build an outdoor baseball venue without fleecing the taxpayers along the way. In 2000, I even served on a Minneapolis citizen's committee that developed some creative, commonsense recommendations about ballpark design and financing. But none of that ever seems to matter once the Twins' annual stadium campaign kicks into high gear.

Quite frankly, I can't imagine any baseball fan in Minnesota who doesn't want to see the Twins play outdoors in the sunshine, myself included. And precious few who would actually argue that the Metrodome is a good baseball venue. But it's irresponsible for yet another stadium plan to go forward with as little scrutiny as has been given the Hennepin County proposal currently before the Minnesota legislature. And contrary to the glowing comments generated by the team's PR machinery, the latest Twins stadium plan might be the worst ever.

 

Location

SBC Park in San Francisco, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and Camden Yards in Baltimore are all examples of attractive stadia built along the waterfront, while Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston are intimate venues that fit seamlessly within an urban neighborhood environment. Curiously, the highly-touted Rapid Park site on the edge of the warehouse district [in Minneapolis] offers none of these characteristics. The proposed stadium would be wedged between a sea of buildings on one side and freeway ramps on the other, and like the unfulfilled promise of the Metrodome the past twenty-five years, the site conjures up images of isolation rather than a vibrant night life.

It is true that this location may someday become the transportation hub that local officials envision, but there is nothing more than anecdotal data to suggest that a significant number of fans attending a Twins game will use mass transit. This might explain why the team is touting the estimated 23,000 parking spaces within blocks of the site. What they won't tell you is how slowly those nearby parking garages will empty after a weeknight contest, and what impact traffic jams might have on how eager fans are to regularly attend Twins gamesˇespecially if the team isn't winning.

Then, of course, there's the fact that the county's garbage burner will sit behind the third base seats of the proposed new stadium. While Hennepin County officials may claim that the effluent coming from the stacks of the burner is "completely safe," who really wants to inhale the particulate matter that will circulate in the atmosphere directly above the stadium? It's one thing to walk around downtown Minneapolis oblivious to possible carcinogens emitted by the burner, and quite another to be exposed to this output while sitting for three hours in an open air facility that rises fifteen to twenty stories above street level.

 

Competitiveness

Since 1997, the Twins have argued that they can't compete in the Metrodome, yet the team has won three straight divisional championships and, since 2000, increased its annual payroll from a league-low $15.7 million to its present $56.6 million. Team president Jerry Bell will claim, of course, that this level of success can't be maintained, that the team remains in the bottom third of baseball in revenues and thus won't be able to meet the increased salary demands of their top players absent a new facility. Yet the Twins' current payroll is greater than that of the Texas Rangers, Colorado Rockies, Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, and Pittsburgh Piratesˇall of which play in new baseball stadia that have opened, in some cases, just a few years ago. While Bell says that the Twins would "probably raise their payroll by $20 million" annually if a new stadium were built, there is nothing in the current legislation that requires the team to do so.

 

Fan Benefits

One selling point the Twins have used to bolster their new stadium argument is that there will be many more lower deck or "choice" seats in a new venue. True enough. But those seats will fetch a much higher priceˇusually a 40 to 100 percent increase, based on what's happened in other new stadiumsˇthan the upper deck seats at the Metrodome that will be eliminated in the new stadium's design. Furthermore, while the Twins claim there will still be many affordable seats in a new stadium, there is no language in the Hennepin County bill that specifically defines affordability or guarantees that a set number of seats must be offered within a given price range.

 

Cost Overruns

Unbeknownst to many, the legislation that Hennepin County has put together conveniently exempts the team from any cost overruns not related to the stadium structure itself. And while the county's share of the costs for a new stadium are "capped" at $235 million for "ballpark costs," there is no limit on the amount of expenditure for land, site improvements, and public infrastructure. As a result, any problems associated with the stadium site will be the county's responsibility to mitigate. So, for example, if the environmental concerns of having a garbage burner nearby prove to have validityˇor merely affect attendanceˇHennepin County could be asked to relocate that facility. Similarly, if parking snafus prove unmanageable, again, it's the county (and your tax dollars) that would pay for new garages, additional traffic cops, whatever. Ditto for public infrastructure costs related to the redevelopment of adjacent land parcels for the Twins' benefit. And remember, as the bill is currently written, none of these potential costsˇincluding the price of the stadium itselfˇwill be subjected to a voter referendum, contrary to existing state law.

Like many who have been involved in the near-decade-long stadium debate, I am weary of the process. But with the latest polls indicating that nearly 70 percent of Minnesotans still oppose public funding for a new Twins ballpark, I remain convinced that simply capitulating to whatever stadium plan the Twins put forward is not only bad for the community, it's bad public policy. Citizen advocates in San Francisco and Boston forced team owners in those communities to craft ballpark solutions that ended up being far better for the fans and taxpayers, and there is no reason why we are not entitled to a uniquely Minnesotan response here as well.

—EFQ

 

Excerpts of May 3, 2004 Testimony before Minnesota State Legislature

With all due respect to Representative Stang, this might be the worst bill ever to come before the House Tax Committee. It is as if every possible advantage has been given the Twins, with no real attempt to negotiate any cost containment provisions, no effort to restrain the design, and no attempt to compel the Twins to put significant resources into a stadium project, as if naming rights revenue, for example, should be treated as a team asset when such monies will be possible only if the state provides the mechanism for a new stadium to be built.

We've heard a lot of talk about how no general fund money will be put into a stadium, that the legislature is merely providing potential host cities the opportunity to bid for a new stadium in their community, as if this is some kind of win-win situation that won't come at the expense of any other project or programs. Yet what will happen when Hennepin County needs money for roads or bridges or for operating the Hennepin County Medical Center? Or for affordable housing and shelter services? Where will the county get the revenues for those projects if the state allows the kind of booster-driven approach to governing that seeks to appropriate monies instead for a non-revenue generating asset like a baseball stadium? Don't you folks feel any kind of responsibility to prevent this kind of recklessness from happening?

I could go on and on, but I am especially struck by the fact that in an era when the legislature will not raise taxes to ensure quality schools, medical care, affordable housing, child care, transportation, and a whole slew of other projects, this committee is now poised to allow the raising of taxes to fund sports stadiumsˇand to do so without taxpayer approval. Some have suggested that such decisions are best left to the legislature, that if the voters don't approve, they can vote you folks out of office this November. And maybe that will happen; maybe some of you will lose your jobs if you allow this awful piece of legislation to become law. But that won't remove the burden foisted on the public once the bonds are sold and ground is broken for a new stadium.

So I ask that you vote this horrible, hackneyed proposal down once and for all, and the next time a Twins lobbyist shows his or her face in your office, throw them out. This has gone on long enough. Thank you.

—EFQ

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN is a graduate of the William Mitchell College of Law. Last November, he was elected to a four-year term as a member of the St. Paul School Board.

© 2006 Tom Goldstein

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