A new minor league ballpark for St. Paul has topped the list of finalists all vying for $47.5 million in state grants.

Communities statewide have been jockeying all summer for a shot at the money. The Metropolitan Council wanted it to help build the southwest rail corridor. Rochester wanted it for a new civic center. Minneapolis wanted to use it to help renovate Nicollet Mall.

State development officials spent months whittling a stack of 90 applications down to a short list of projects, ranked by the number of jobs they'd create, the money they'd bring into the community and other development benefits.

Given those goals, the proposed $27 million St. Paul Saints ballpark is the highest-ranked project in the metro region.

Other top contenders include a $2.5 million wastewater improvement project in Litchfield, the top-ranking project in southern Minnesota, and Duluth's request for $10 million for downtown development and a new parking ramp, which led the list of projects in the northern half of the state.

News of St. Paul's positive evaluation smoked through political circles quicker than a hot reliever's fastball. But no one wanted to jinx it by celebrating too early. The list from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is just a recommendation, with Gov. Mark Dayton making a final decision later this week.

Saints vice president Annie Heidekoper got the word Monday afternoon, then went about the business of lowering flags on the field to half-staff to commemorate Sept. 11 -- signaling that she was not breaking out the party hats just yet.

"I won't feel good until we have people with bulldozers," Heidekoper said.

Rochester's prospects dwindle

In Rochester, where the community needs $25 million in grant funds to fire up its own bulldozers and break ground on a new Mayo Civic Center, news that it ranked sixth on the list of southern Minnesota priorities was a shock, but no reason to give up hope.

"We will wait to see what the final list looks like," said John Wade, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, who hopes the new civic center will transform the city into a hub for medical conventions, boost the hotel and service industries and pump millions of dollars into the region's economy. "I wish [all the other finalists] well, but we have met every test. We are shovel-ready. This project will have a far greater economic impact than even we realized when we made the application."

The $47.5 million was an unexpected windfall from the Legislature, which turned over a chunk of bonding money to DEED to award to projects based on merit, rather than just on political clout. But the number of applications -- 90 projects requesting $288 million worth of funding -- means there will be lots of disappointment when final projects are announced.

Among the crestfallen is Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who came up with the idea for the bonding grants, and who was stung that his hometown civic center ranked lower than a sewer project in Litchfield. The convention center would, he said, grow the tax base across southern Minnesota. Sewer and water projects are great, he said, but lack a certain "wow factor."

Dayton originally had offered to support bonding for the convention center at the beginning of last session as an olive branch, to induce Senate Republicans to cooperate early on a bonding proposal. He was rebuffed, but Senjem now holds out hope that Dayton will see his way to resurrecting the project.

"I think [Dayton] has a lot of latitude," Senjem said. He said he may try to chat with the governor before the final decision is made.

Meanwhile, St. Paul Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer was ready to start rejoicing.

After all, the city had seen the ballpark claw its way back into funding contention after Republican lawmakers stripped it from the bonding bill. The city has already purchased land in Lowertown, where the future ballpark would anchor the downtown and, planners hope, put people on the streets of the artsy, café-lined streets of the area near the St. Paul Farmers Market, just steps from the new central-corridor light rail line.

Kramer said the ballpark would bring construction jobs, permanent jobs and 400,000 visitors to Lowertown, "all of whom have wallets." The location, he said, is the knockout pitch.

"You're going to have a ballpark on either end of the central corridor," he said. "Tell me that isn't cool."

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049