At the halfway point of its inaugural season, the Twins' new home is a rookie sensation among downtown businesses.
The area around Target Field is alive with activity before and after Twins games. And experts say the economic vitality the stadium has brought downtown won’t necessarily be short-lived, though the team’s success will have a big bearing on that.
When it comes to embracing change, Louis Sirian is usually among the last holdouts. He has owned his Minneapolis bar on what he calls the back end of Target Field since the 1970s, but it's Lee's Liquor Lounge -- not Lou's -- because he never got around to changing the previous owner's sign.
So as baseball pauses this week to assess things at its annual midsummer All-Star break, Sirian is happily reassessing his 2009 prediction that the sumptuous new stadium would be nothing more than an elitist den for the rich that wouldn't affect his cash drawer.
"I guess I'm eating my words, and I'll tell you what -- it's helping enormously, with 50 people coming in before and after every game," Sirian said. "I was wrong: There isn't any business better."
Lou's cash drawer is just one of the signs the new ballpark is transforming the west side of downtown Minneapolis, both along the warehouses on the "back end" and the entertainment area where most fans spill out onto 1st Avenue.
Neighbors in the North Loop condos and lofts say the traffic and parking snarls haven't been as bad as feared because 20 percent of fans take trains, buses and bikes to games. The owner of the Loon Cafe says it rang up more sales in May than any month in the spot's 28-year history.
Hennepin County administrators insist more analysis is needed but say preliminary sales tax receipts show revenues up nearly 9 percent in April, with May totals that are due soon expected to continue the trend.
City officials say more than twice as many vehicles are paying to park in government-run parking spaces surrounding Target Field, shifting from the privately owned lots that filled the Metrodome area. And several bars and restaurants that were choking on hard economic times a year ago are now gushing with optimism.
"What a great answer to the great recession," said Dario Anselmo, who owns the Fine Line Music Cafe, a longtime Warehouse District fixture. He admits much of the boon might be more of an economic shift, with baseball fans replacing customers who are steering clear of the hubbub. And game-day feasts, business owners caution, are offset by off-day famines and continued challenges from the sluggish economy.
"Some people thought this would be a huge home run," Anselmo said, "but it's been more like a solid Joe Mauer double."
And Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak will take that, saying the Metrodome taught city planners valuable lessons.
"We knew from the Metrodome experience that a baseball stadium doesn't create an entertainment district itself, but Target Field is proving you can dramatically improve and strengthen an existing entertainment district," Rybak said. "You can't put a price tag on what it means to have 40,000 [people] walking into and out of a building smiling, but it's a big deal."
The mayor said watching the Twins in Toronto on TV last week, games played in front of a sea of empty seats, reminded him that "the bloom goes off the rose" eventually.
But economists say the novelty uptick a new stadium provides needn't be short-lived -- especially if team brass fields a competitive product.
"Honeymoon effects of a new facility usually last into a third season; a winner, however, can prolong that," said Mark Rosentraub, a University of Michigan sports scholar who wrote a book last year about baseball teams revamping downtown U.S. cities.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and author of several sports business books, said new stadiums in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., "fell flat on their faces because the teams stunk."
Minnesota is a different story, he said, pointing to an ESPN The Magazine ranking that put Target Field No. 1 in "stadium experience," eclipsing Green Bay's Lambeau Field and moving up 113 spots from the Metrodome's 114th finish out of 122 venues last year.
"Whether it's No. 1 or in the top five, you hear much, much more excitement about Target Field than you usually hear," Zimbalist said. "It's clearly one of the best stadiums that's ever been built and the Twins are clearly a competitive team, so I see this flocking-to-the-stadium phenomenon continuing for several years."
Even those who live in nearby warehouse lofts say grumbling is nearly nonexistent.
"I'm not going to give you gloom, doom, anger or angst because more eyes on the street, I believe, make us safer," said Karen Rosar, a leader of the Northern Loop Neighborhood Association.
Some lament the parking headaches and the city turning free curbside parking into metered two-hour limits. But neighbors have adapted fast.
"I have not heard one neighbor complain about the ballpark," said Fritz Kroll, a real estate agent who lives a few blocks from Target Field. "Even my dog, Archer, has stopped barking at the fireworks."
Scott Woller, 33, who lives in a loft across from the Corner Coffee shop he runs near the park, said his 100-unit building has only four guest spots, which can be a hassle if friends stop on game days.
"But getting in and out of the area has really been a non-issue," he said. "If anything, we're waiting for the stadium newness to rub off a little bit, so people will spend more time in the neighborhood and less in the stadium."
Amid all the giddiness, some business owners say the human traffic has been somewhat hit or miss. At Roy Smalley's Club 87, which replaced a slumping Champps on First Avenue, proprietor Tim (Giggles) Weiss said he needs 48 employees on game days and only 14 on off-days.
"This isn't the honeymoon stage; it's still the engagement-infatuation period," he said. "For a handful of places like ours, it's been phenomenal."
Chris Rodgers, who owns the 26-year-old Lyon's Pub on 6th Street, said thousands stream past his door hours before the game "because the stadium is such a jewel."
He might make an extra $1,000 per day when the Twins are playing a four-game weekday homestand, he said, "but by Friday, people are burned out and stay away from downtown so we're down $4,000.
"I'm hoping this represents more than replacement business from what we lost in the recession," Rodgers said. "It's brought amazing energy downtown."
At the Loon Cafe, a long foul ball from the park, owner Tim Mahoney said summers are typically a downtime because people are off fishing and paddling in lakes and rivers. So when his May revenues hit record highs, Mahoney grinned with demographic delight.
"It's not just business guys, it's families, moms, dads, Grandma, Grandpa, college kids," Mahoney said. "We had a perfect storm of good weather, 18 May home games and the Brewers bringing fans on a weekend.
"Everyone," he said, "is smiling ear to ear, and happy people spend money."
The latest to leap onto the bandwagon is restaurateur Thom Pham, whose up-and-down track record has included the defunct Temple and soon-to-close Azia restaurants. He's busily revamping 10,000 square feet of former Olive Garden space on the corner of 6th and Hennepin. Wanderers Wondrous Azian Kitchen will employ 60 people when it opens in August, he said.
"I'd be crazy not to get in on this," Pham said. "The stadium has turned Minneapolis into a completely different city. All this traffic is insane."
Even Sirian, 73, is embracing the Target Field change.
"I never did get any business from the Target Center, so I figured it would be the same story," he said. "But to tell you the truth, this stadium has been a big improvement down here."
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767