Lori Sturdevant: In Rochester, a key political test of the bonding bill

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2012 - 11:55 AM

The city wants a better convention center. So does the governor. But what about the city's state senator?

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A sketch of the rejuvenated Mayo Civic Center.

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I'm a trusting sort. I trust that Gov. Mark Dayton included $35 million for expansion of Rochester's Mayo Civic Center in his proposed bonding bill solely because he shares economic futurist Richard Florida's vision for Minnesota's third-largest city.

Rochester is poised for the fastest growth in jobs in the nation, Florida says. He projects a 12.3 percent jobs gain in the city that's home to the Mayo Clinic between 2008 and 2018.

Other analysts are also bullish on Rochester. Its mix of world-class medicine, computing and agribusiness positions it to become the Austin, Texas, of the north. All it lacks is a few smart public-sector sparks -- like a bona fide convention center.

I'm sure that prospect, and not the chance to put new Senate GOP Majority Leader David Senjem in an uncomfortable spot, drove the DFL governor's thinking.

Mostly, anyway.

But this trusting sort notes that the Rochester project's value as a potential political bargaining chip inflated substantially when Senjem got his new title a month ago. And while that puts Rochester's No. 1 legislative priority into the spotlight this session, it might also put it in trouble before the session ends.

Serendipity appears to have set up this situation. Dayton backed the plan to upgrade Rochester's arena long before Senjem's election as GOP leader on Dec. 27.

Rochester has been coming to the State Capitol since 2008 to pitch a plan for a 180,000-square-foot, $77 million addition to the Mayo Civic Center. The city is asking the state to pay half of the bill.

The prose version of the city's argument for state money is that the facility is more than a local asset. For the poetry, I called on Rochester Chamber of Commerce president John Wade:

"We aim to be a destination medical community, one that offers meaningful, unparalleled experiences of hope, health and hospitality to every person, every day. We can't do that without a viable civic and convention center. It's not just a nice thing to have. In many ways it's essential."

National and international medical conferences are going elsewhere now that easily could be drawn to Rochester with more ample convention space, Wade said.

The city's benefit calculus for the project: $30 million to $40 million per year in economic impact, 400 construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs -- not many in the convention center itself, but more in the hospitality industry that supports it, said Mayor Ardell Brede.

That's how he justifies a 3 percent increase in city lodging taxes, proposed to pay for the city's half of the project's cost.

Supporting a building project this promising ought to be a no-brainer for Rochester's legislators in both parties -- or so it seems.

But in 2010, the Tea-infused GOP had lost its appetite for projects that could be cast as local pork. After approving planning money for the Mayo Civic Center in 2008, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed construction funds in 2010.

He did the same to civic center proposals in Mankato and St. Cloud. Notably, all three places elected Republicans in 2010. The class of 2010 came to St. Paul convinced that austerity plays better with voters than do government-funded development dreams.

That view prevails in Senjem's caucus, which he now serves not only as majority leader but also as chair of the Capital Investment Committee. That makes him the guy Rochester boosters expect to champion their bids for bonding dollars.

Does he? He wouldn't say a flat yes or no last week. (One doesn't rise, fall, then rise again in legislative leadership without an ability to dance around difficult questions.)

"For me, it's a question of mathematics," he said. "How do we make this work?"

Higher-education projects have the highest claim on bonding dollars, he said, followed by water and sewer, local bridges, and flood control. Civic centers are lower on the priority list, and sometimes don't make the cut.

But all the numbers in a bonding bill are politically charged, starting with the bottom line. The Dayton administration says the state can afford a $775 million bill this year. Republicans say they can only stomach a bill about two-thirds that size.

The smaller the GOP bonding bill gets, the more Senjem will be torn between the pleadings of his city and the desires of his caucus. And the more Senjem caters to his parsimonious peers, the more Dayton can campaign this fall saying that if Rochester wants state government to help it grow, it should elect DFLers.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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