Patience a key virtue in stadium fight, says Bell

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2011 - 6:37 AM

The former Twins executive spent a decade trying to get a new ballpark, and advises the Vikings, and fans, not to panic.

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Former Twins President Jerry Bell

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Jerry Bell called as he was finishing a round of golf on Thursday afternoon. "When you're semi-retired," he said, "you've got to take advantage of days like this."

Bell earned his afternoons of leisure. He invested a decade of his life in the pursuit of a new ballpark for the Twins, first as the team president, then as president of Twins Inc., a position that made him, essentially, a stadium lobbyist and strategist.

He has watched the myriad developments in the Vikings' stadium odyssey with a knowing eye. While every setback leads to a statement of disappointment from the Vikings and speculation that the franchise could leave Minnesota, Bell feels optimistic that a deal is in the making.

"I know the process can be maddening, and I'm sure the Vikings are very frustrated, but they're probably better off today than they've been the whole time they've been at this," Bell said. "It may not seem that way on the face of it, but they are.

"I know for a fact that there are legislators, and legislators in leadership positions, who want to get it done. Sometimes they can't come out on a limb and say that publicly, but I know they want it."

The Twins began pursuing a new ballpark in the mid-1990s and finally gained approval of what would become Target Field in 2006.

The team threatened to move to the Triad area of North Carolina, but the potential owner, Don Beaver, turned out to be as fictional as Santa Claus and not as rich. Donald Watkins came to town, promising to buy the team and build a stadium, which was strange to hear from a guy who drove an old Malibu.

Owner Carl Pohlad unveiled a plan in which he would donate money to the stadium project. Then we found out it was a loan that would be repaid to Carl, with interest. That set the team back a few years.

The Vikings' pursuit has been much cleaner. It has also been much shorter.

"Patience is obviously a requirement," Bell said. "And the Vikings have had a fair amount, but don't lose it now. I think it's going to be a struggle, a real challenge, to get a special session, but I don't think you need a special session.

"The Legislature starts up in January, and I do believe they will get something approved then."

The leadership of Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat secured the key funding for Target Field. Bell believes a new willingness by the Legislature to embrace gambling revenues could be the key for a new Vikings stadium.

"From what I read in the paper, and that's all I know about funding sources in this case, it sounds like there are a couple of gambling options," Bell said. "We took polls -- we took a lot of polls -- and now those polls are five and six years old, but gambling was always the funding mechanism with the least resistance. Always. And the funding mechanisms that came in second place were always a quite a ways away."

The Vikings are upset that their proposed deal in Arden Hills appears scuttled. The Twins wanted a retractable-roof stadium by the river, and wound up in an open-air ballpark downtown. They aren't complaining.

"I think there were two or three times when we felt like it was over for us," Bell said. "There was one time when they called a special session and so many people called to complain that the phones got jammed up. I thought, 'This is much worse than I thought it would be.' And then somewhere along the line it just felt like it was going on forever and we're not making progress and it's not going to work.

"In 2005, we were probably where the Vikings are right now. We felt, 'If you can't approve this deal, there's no Plan B. We've got nothing else.' But then that's actually what did get approved in 2006.

"That's why I'm saying, 'Don't give up.' I really do believe it's going to happen. And it should."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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