Hotdish Politics: Hoping for a slice of the bonding windfall pie

  • Updated: September 1, 2012 - 11:56 PM
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Renderings of the proposed new Saints ballpark and new soccer stadium.

Photo: Mike Zerby, Star Tribune

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How do you divide a pie when there are 90 hungry communities with plates out, hoping for a slice? The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) spent the summer puzzling over that math.

"There are just a ton of impressive projects out there. It's a tough job," said department spokesman Blake Chaffee.

The Legislature gave the agency a pot of bonding money to distribute as economic development grants to worthy projects around the state. Legislators outlined an 11-point evaluation process designed to ensure the money goes to the projects that create the most jobs and give the biggest economic boosts to their communities.

DEED has $47.5 million to give away. It would take $288 million to grant all 90 of the requests it has received so far. For the communities that have applied, it has been a long, worried wait.

"We are anxious, I guess that's a good way of putting it," said Joe Campbell, spokesman for St. Paul, which is hoping that $27 million of the fund will go to help the city build a new home for the Saints baseball team.

St. Paul is confident enough of its chances that it has already bought the land for the new Lowertown ballpark. Now, it's just waiting to see if the state has the same confidence that the project will create jobs and help the surrounding neighborhood.

"We're feeling really good," Campbell said. "We remain confident that the state will see the same benefits [from the development] that we seek."

The prospect of millions in grant money set off an avalanche of applications. Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud need money for their civic centers; Minneapolis wants funding for the Nicollet Mall renovation; the Metropolitan Council wants $14 million for the Southwest light-rail corridor; Hibbing is hoping for funding to renovate its curling rink.

When the Legislature decided to cede part of its bonding authority to a state agency, it was pitched as an experiment -- to see what would happen if projects were funded on their merits, not just local political clout. But in July, Gov. Mark Dayton stepped in to announce that he would make the final decision on the grants.

"No matter who decides and how they decide, you're going to end up saying no to a lot of really worthwhile projects that are very meritorious," Dayton said at the time. "In hindsight, I think this will prove that this is not a wise process that has the Legislature circumvent its responsibility to make bonding decisions on behalf of the entire state."

The Business Development Through Capital Project grant program funds up to 50 percent of the cost of a local economic development project. To qualify, the projects have to meet the criteria outlined by lawmakers, including that the project be shovel-ready, be capable of drawing out-of-state money and be supported by local government. The Legislature also called for a balance of projects between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state.

Dayton's decision is expected sometime around the week of Sept. 10.

  • No more Mr. Nice Guv

    Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who called Barack Obama the "tattoo president" in a speech at the Republican National Convention last week, says it was his pushback against the "Minnesota Nice" label. Pawlenty said the idea came from an encounter with Fox News' Neil Cavuto, who pressed him about his nondescript image. "He was asking me questions about, I can't remember now, but it was basically, 'are you bland' or something," Pawlenty recalled. "And I jokingly said 'if you push me, I'll show you my tats.' So that was the inspiration." -- Kevin Diaz

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