The state of Minnesota has $47.5 million to give away.
Ninety different economic development projects would like a piece of that pie -- a wish list so long it would cost $228.3 million to give everyone everything they want.
Monday was the deadline to apply for the funds. Now the state Department of Employment and Economic Development will spend the rest of the summer whittling down that list to to find $47.5 million worth of projects that offer the biggest regional economic development bang for the buck.
DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips said the agency will try to spread the money around the state – “have a little bit of geographic balance.” Phillips said he hasn’t begun the review yet, but already some projects stand out, like St. Paul’s $27 million request for grant funds to build a new minor league ballpark.
“I’m assuming the Saints ballpark will score pretty high,” Phillips said, noting the potential regional benefits of a new Lowertown park for the St. Paul Saints.
About eight of the projects on the list were also on Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding request list this year, including the ballpark; $25 million to renovate Nicollet Mall and $750,000 for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden; $14 million for the Southwest light rail corridor; and several civic centers -- $25 million for Rochester, $14.5 million for Mankato and $9.6 million for St. Cloud.
Rather than fund those projects, and other on the waiting list, the Legislature turned over almost $50 million to the Dayton administration with instructions to award the money to communities based on merit, rather than politics.
Phillips, more used to awarding low-key grants for things like sewer and water line projects, told reporters Tuesday that he and his staff "weren't so keen" on the idea of having a $50 million bonding bill hot potato dropped in their laps.
"Don’t think it’s ever been done before where legislature gave up" a chunk of its bonding authority to another state agency, Phillips said. "It seems odd, they say 'We’re going to give them a small amount of money and let them decide."
Now, the agency is facing a summer full of the sort of lobbying and media scrutiny.
"It has the potential to be frustrating, I guess," Phillips said. "Nobody tracked the transportation infrastructure development grants we just awarded."
So far, the single biggest lobbying powerhouse, with the most letters begging DEED to fund their project, has been Minneapolis Special School District No. 1, which is hoping for $2.7 million to update its athletic facilities. But since "community support" is one of the criteria the agency will use to evaluate the project, Phillips said the enthusiasm certainly can't hurt the project's chances.
Dozens of communities jumped at the chance to get another run at the bonding funds.Ramsey County lost its bid to convince the Legislature to rebuild Vikings Stadium rebuilt on the site of an abandoned munitions plant. The county put in a $5.9 million request to DEED to help clean up the site for future development.
But other proposals, Phillips noted, don't quite seem to match the criteria the agency outlined. DEED requested applications for shovel-ready projects with price tags over $1 million that would create jobs and boost the regional economy
Instead, it got a good number or requests for money to renovate the local fire hall, or build a new grade school, or put up a new electric transmission line.
DEED will choose its finalists, possibly in late August, Phillips said, then consult with Dayton before awarding the grants.
How much input will the governor have on the final decision?
"As much as he wants," Phillips said.