U gets stadium; Twins on track

Gophers football returns to campus. In session's final hours, House approves Twins deal; Senate votes this morning.

The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Twins scored impressive victories for new stadiums late Saturday at the State Capitol, paving the way for open-air football to return to campus and putting the Twins on the verge of a new ballpark.

The Twins won a 71-61 vote on the House floor shortly before midnight and overcame a last-minute scare that threatened to unravel the project. Early today, the team needed only a final approval in the Senate to secure a $522 million new stadium in downtown Minneapolis' Warehouse District.

"If it was about rich owners, if it was about the ballplayers, I don't think we'd be here," said Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, who urged legislators to end the two-hour debate and endorse the team's proposal.

"It's about the stories of parents taking their kids to the ballpark and remembering it 20 years later," Brod said.

Stadium opponents launched a last-minute challenge to the project and asked that the proposal be returned to a House-Senate conference committee, a move that would have represented a serious threat to the stadium. But the effort was beaten back on a 75-57 vote.

"It feels like we're halfway there," said Jerry Bell, the Twins lead stadium negotiator, who afterward headed to the Senate chamber to await the vote there.

Earlier in the evening University officials were doing the celebrating. As the final vote on the Gophers stadium was announced in the House, Gophers Athletic Director Joel Maturi clenched his fist and smiled.

University President Robert Bruininks, wearing a maroon blazer, watched from the gallery, telling reporters afterward: "I think this is the right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it."

For the university, the vote reverses a decision made more than 25 years ago to move games to the Metrodome, sharing the facility with the Twins and the Vikings and tearing down the university's aging Memorial Stadium.

Bruininks said the stadium, which would break ground in the fall and take three years to finish, does not mean that the university is placing athletics above academics -- a complaint heard from some legislators Saturday who voted against the proposal.

"I don't think this is a misplaced priority," said Bruininks, who acknowledged that some of the university's academic funding requests had not been passed by the Legislature.

"Our academic mission comes first," he said.

Bruininks shook hands with House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who came up to the House gallery to congratulate school officials. "The best president, and now we're going to have the best stadium," said Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

Lopsided votes

The plan for the 50,000-seat horseshoe-shaped stadium requires $10.25 million in state general fund money for 25 years and includes $35 million through a naming rights deal with TCF Financial Corp., a land swap, and a maximum per student fee of $25 per year. It does not include a memorabilia tax that would have been imposed on sports apparel and gear.

The 43-24 vote in the Senate and the 96-37 vote in the House came after hard questions were asked about the propriety of the deal as opposed to other priorities for the university, its implications on forcing indebted students to foot a portion of the bill, and the value of the land swap.

"We are using general fund dollars and a tax on students to build a sports stadium. We could have put these general fund dollars towards the mission of the university," said Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, who voted against the measure. "Why is it that we cannot get a commitment from the state to provide for our students' academic needs but we have no problem using state funding to build a new venue for a football team?"

But Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said a direct link remains between strong athletic programs and the ability of a university to raise money for academics and research. He said collegiate football stadiums bring communities together.

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