Wednesday, May 04, 2005

2005: A Stadium Odyessy

Yesterday was a dark one in Twins Territory, and as some of you may have noticed, Twins Chatter was eerily silent. That trend will continue today, but not because I don't have something to say about Rincon's suspension. If you're looking for a well-written article addressing the issue, I highly recommend this one by Jim Souhan in the Strib. In the meantime, I encourage you to peruse my mass audience-oriented stadium post below. It's a pretty good summation of the present situation, and if you know anyone who's looking to become educated on this issue in a short period of time, I think you could do worse than have them read what I've written below.

Postscript: I'd also like to direct your attention to this article, which Shane over at Greet Machine brought to my attention. It is an excellent primer for those of you looking for easy-to-follow stadium information.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m proud to be a Minnesotan. Our state boasts a wealth of natural beauty, an excellent education system, a relatively low crime rate and robust social welfare programs. Plus, as most of your out-of-state friends have probably learned by now, the people here are just so darn nice it’ll make your face hurt.

Yet there is at least one area where I am utterly ashamed of my fellow Gopher State residents: Our backwards views when it comes to building stadiums for professional sports teams. This state has a long and forgettable history when it comes to stadium policy, and recent events have led me to believe we've learned painfully little from our previous mistakes.

Last week, it was announced that Hennepin County and the Minnesota Twins had come to an agreement on a brand new, 42,000-seat open air ballpark for the team, to be built in downtown Minneapolis' Warehouse District near the Target Center. Funding for the $478 million project would come from a couple of different sources, none of them directly involving state government. Twins owner Carl Pohlad would chip in $125 million and Hennepin County would enact a 0.15% sales tax (which would be in place for 25-30 years) to raise the additional funds. For those of you scoring at home, a 0.15% sales tax increase amounts to three cents on every $20, or less than a penny on your morning latte and $30 on a new car.

“Great!” those of you unfamiliar with stadium politics in the Northland may be saying about now. “The agreement is beneficial for both sides, the logistics are all worked out, and the funding plan sounds relatively painless. What seems to be problem?”

In short, just about everything.

When it comes to stadium policy in Minnesota, there is only universal truth – the Twins cannot survive in the Metrodome in the long run. That 24 year-old concrete bowl in downtown Minneapolis is currently the worst overall stadium in major league baseball, and it’s not even close. The poor atmosphere, the ill-positioned baseball seats, the artificial playing surface, and the aesthetics are just depressing. Yet the Dome's most damning characteristic stems from its very outdatedness. Simply put, the Twins can not remain a financially viable major league franchise in their current stadium. The reasons are myriad, but the truth is undeniable.

The stadium saga began nine long years ago, when, taking their cue from other teams in the league, the Twins went to the Minnesota state legislature and made their plea for a new home. The team was shot down that year…and the next, and the next, and every single year since then. We've seen referendums defeated, legislative bills killed in committee, bills trounced in both the House and Senate, an ill-advised relocation threat by the team, the contraction scare of 2002, and numerous plans never make it out of the newspapers. In that time, the state's budget has gone from deficit to surplus and back to deficit, but this singular issue has always loomed overhead, like a rain delay that just won't go away.

Since this debate began back in 1996, almost half of the league's 30 teams have opened or procured new venues. In addition, the new venues have occurred in such unlikely places as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Detroit. But in a state that consistently ranks among America's most sports-centric, we have been unable, despite nearly a decade of trying, to decide on a workable plan that will allow the state's most successful sports franchise to depart the football stadium in which they currently reside.

“Tired” is the word that best describes the stadium movement in Minnesota today. Twins officials are tired of courting public approval on such an unpopular issue. Twins fans are tired of hearing both sides reiterate the same old arguments. Public officials are tired of encountering the same roadblocks that have stalled this issue for much of the past decade. Everyone involved would like to see this issue resolved, one way or another. The choice is clear – either approve the new stadium or the state loses baseball. Rarely do such complicated issues boil down so simply, but that is indeed the case in this instance.

When last week's plan was first announced, the prevailing mood was one of cautious optimism. It seemed almost too good to be true: no state money involved, (a key sticking point in previous negotiations) a specific site with infrastructure and easy public access already in place, an infinitesimal tax hit spread out over many years, and a generous up-front contribution from the team.

Yet in the true spirit of Minnesotan political indecisiveness, even this seemingly win-win situation has little chance of actually becoming a reality. Although the Hennepin County Board approved the ballpark plan yesterday, the issue must still be voted on in the Minnesota State legislature, arguably the most maddeningly egalitarian political body in the country. In the off chance that this issue even comes to a vote before the session ends in a few weeks, (naturally, the legislature still has many other key bills to pass this year) it is unlikely that the a majority of the state's top politicians will suddenly come to a consensus on an issue they have successful skirted for years.

However, what many lawmakers probably do not realize is that this may very well be the last gasp of the stadium movement. Both Pohlad and Twins president Jerry Bell have been unusually reserved when talking about the latest plan, an indication that they may be on the verge of giving up if it doesn’t go through. Contraction, thwarted in 2002, may once again rear its ugly head in 2007 and the Twins are once again prime candidates for the chopping block. If no new stadium deal can be reached sooner rather than later, the Minnesota Twins could very well cease to exist.

When that day comes, we’ll all be ashamed to call ourselves Minnesotans.