Concerned that time is running out to land a Major League Soccer franchise for the Twin Cities, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said Thursday that he will lead an “all-hands-on-deck effort” in coming weeks to build a stadium in his city.

The mayor gave no specifics on a financing plan, saying that it was too early to say how St. Paul might assist local investors in building a $120 million soccer-only stadium on an underdeveloped tract in the Midway area.

But now that Minneapolis has missed the MLS deadline for a plan to build a stadium near Target Field, Coleman said, the 34.5-acre site at Snelling and University avenues represents Minnesota’s best chance to get a franchise that was promised on the condition that it has its own field.

“I’m a firm believer that MLS will do well in Minnesota, but I also believe that the clock is ticking right now for a soccer-specific stadium,” Coleman said in a conference call with reporters.

Several times the mayor stressed the need to act quickly, before MLS offers the franchise to another city. Yet his silence as the July 1 deadline passed for Minneapolis raised speculation that soccer officials were only using St. Paul to leverage a better deal for Minneapolis.

Minneapolis isn’t giving up, City Council Member Jacob Frey said Thursday. The city’s stadium working group, formed last month, has scheduled its first meeting for July 17; it includes Mayor Betsy Hodges, several council members and top city staffers.

“I’ve talked with the team. They’re not messing around,” Frey said, declining to elaborate.

Coleman asserted that he negotiates “with my eyes wide open” and has no intention of being a pawn in a game being played for Minneapolis’ benefit.

“I’m confident that we can get something done,” he said.

On Wednesday Coleman invited MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott to tour the Midway site, which includes an aging strip mall and vacant acreage once used by Metro Transit to store buses.

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche confirmed Thursday that Abbott spoke late Wednesday with Coleman, but did not provide further details.

“We look forward to visiting St. Paul soon,” Courtemanche said. “A date has not been set yet.” Coleman said that a visit might have to wait until after the MLS All-Star Game later this month.

“It’s very clear that they need a real plan as opposed to a hope,” Coleman said. “We won’t have all the details ironed out in the next two to three weeks, but we think we can show them that the site will work.”

The mayor has had two informal meetings with the local ownership group led by Dr. Bill McGuire, who owns the Minnesota United FC franchise, but no specific deal has been discussed. Neither team officials nor McGuire would comment Thursday.

The investors — who include members of the Pohlad family, which owns the Twins, and Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Star Tribune — pledged to use their own money to build a soccer-only stadium in downtown Minneapolis. But they sought property and sales tax breaks that they said would make the project profitable, and MLS held the group to a July 1 deadline to finalize a stadium plan.

The Legislature balked and Minneapolis officials didn’t act. So last week Abbott — who grew up in Oakdale, an east metro suburb — announced that MLS, while not ruling out Minneapolis entirely, would be looking at St. Paul.

Coleman said he’d be willing to consider the kind of tax relief that the investors sought from Minneapolis. A stadium would generate enough redevelopment nearby to more than offset whatever tax breaks are offered, he said.

The Midway site promoted by Coleman is one of two in St. Paul that’s been discussed as having soccer potential; the other one, west of the State Capitol, is home to a Sears department store.

Most of the Midway site is owned by a New York-based property management firm that Coleman said has expressed interest in redeveloping the shopping center. The remaining third, the former bus barn site held by Metro Transit, might easily be offered tax free since it’s already been tax-exempt for decades, the mayor said.

‘An ideal location’

City Council Member Dai Thao, who represents the stadium site area, said the council is willing to consider using “all the tools the city can leverage.”

“I don’t know how serious [the ownership group is] … but I think it would be a good fit,” he said. “It’s an ideal location.”

City Council Member Amy Brendmoen said she wanted more details. “We are challenged in St. Paul with so many parcels off the tax rolls to begin with, so it has to be a smart plan and prudent and respectful of the burden on taxpayers,” she said.

The Midway site — at the intersection of the Green Line and the future bus rapid transit “A” Line on Snelling Avenue, and right off Interstate 94 — has the backing of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which quickly expressed support for Coleman’s stadium push.

The stadium “would have a … catalytic effect in jump-starting property values, increased neighborhood vitality and increased economic employment opportunities,” Chamber President Matt Kramer said in a statement.

Not everyone is convinced. Tom Goldstein, a lawyer and former school board member who is running for the City Council, said a stadium would roil plans to redevelop the site with new streets and job-producing businesses. He said he suspected that the owners would seek not just tax breaks but road improvements, parking and development rights.

“It won’t work and defeats efforts to make it a transit-oriented hub,” he said.

Coleman, who has been careful not to appear to interfere with Minneapolis’ efforts to land soccer, reiterated Thursday that St. Paul is launching a stadium campaign now only because the conversation looks to have ended in Minneapolis. He said he had talked with Hodges but that “no one has greenlighted this from that side of the river.”

Frey denied that Coleman’s interest had spurred Minneapolis into action.

“Obviously, I’m biased in favor of Minneapolis,” he said. “I think Minneapolis has all the tools to make this a tremendously successful cultural infrastructure investment. My first choice is Minneapolis and my second choice is St. Paul, but I certainly don’t want to squander the opportunity for the region.”

 

Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Eric Roper contributed to this story.