Alcohol at U stadium rebubbles as an issue

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA
  • Star Tribune
  • March 24, 2010 - 12:11 AM

Buying alcohol at the University of Minnesota's new football stadium -- at least for the well-heeled -- is back on the menu.

With a Senate panel giving quick approval Tuesday to a plan that could make alcohol available only to those in the stadium's premium seats, the Legislature is poised to revisit a debate it had seemingly settled less than a year ago.

Before TCF Bank Stadium opened last September, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and lawmakers said that if alcohol was sold in the stadium's premium seats it would have to be sold throughout the stadium. The university, in response, banned alcohol not only in the stadium, but at other campus sports arenas.

No Big 10 school serves alcohol in its general seating. In announcing the ban at all campus events last year, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks said he was not going to make the U an outlier. The general alcohol ban that was imposed, he said, "is the best, most responsible, most principled position we can take."

Now a group of influential athletic boosters and lobbyists, including former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, wants that decision reconsidered.

In reviving the debate at the Legislature, Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, told lawmakers Tuesday that the university -- at a time it is facing $36 million in legislative cuts -- also is losing at least $1 million a year because of its alcohol policy. The measure, which would go into effect this fall if passed, will head to another Senate panel, and still faces an uphill fight at the State Capitol.

Said Pappas, who chairs the Senate higher education panel, "I think in these times when we are cutting [the] University of Minnesota budget ... it behooves us not to take away other revenue streams."

Suites discounted

Jim Erickson, a longtime lobbyist who is representing Friends of Gopher Sports, a new lobbying group formed to push the issue, said a small number of leading boosters led by John and Nancy Lindahl wanted to reopen the debate. During the stadium's construction, the Lindahls played key roles in enlisting private donations for the facility.

"Nancy is the one that's passionate about this," Erickson said of the alcohol policy.

University spokesman Dan Wolter said the school did not initiate the lobbying effort, and was not taking a position. But he said the lack of alcohol within the stadium led the school to offer a 10 percent price reduction on suite rentals last year, and a 20 percent discount this year.

While the school had lost up to $1.3 million annually at its sports arenas because of the policy, Wolter said, "only a couple of hundred thousand dollars of that is the result of actual alcohol sales. Most comes from lost sales of suites and premium seating as a result of our venues being less attractive."

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a vocal supporter of making alcohol available to all adult ticket holders, said his feelings have not changed. "The majority of the football stadium was paid for by the taxpayers of the state -- everybody, all of us," he said. "I don't know who the Lindahls are, but the Lindahls never put in as much money as the taxpayers of this state."

'Rather elitist'

"I think it's rather elitist," said Rukavina, who chairs the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance and Policy Division panel. Rukavina, a gubernatorial candidate, appeared to again be joined Tuesday by Pawlenty. Spokesman Brian McClung said that the governor's position has been that "if there's beer for one, there should be beer for all."

Besides, said Rukavina, it was the university -- not the Legislature -- that took things a step further and banned alcohol sales throughout the stadium.

Jake Murphy, president of the Goal Line Club, a booster group for the university's football program, said most regular ticketholders do not care if alcohol is served only to premium-seat holders.

"It's a problem without a victim," he said. "The vast majority of season ticketholders who sit in the regular seats don't care.

"The people [Rukavina's] trying to protect don't want his protection," said Murphy, who said most of the club's members don't sit in premium seats. "We're not the guys in the suites with the big cigars."

Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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