Under firm pressure from Gov. Mark Dayton, St. Paul leaders reversed themselves Wednesday and decided to seek competitive bids for the new Saints ballpark in Lowertown rather than risk losing the entire project.

Dayton met with Mayor Chris Coleman late Tuesday and told him "he couldn't support this project if it wasn't competitively bid," Dayton's spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said.

The 7,000-seat ballpark for the popular minor-league team that now plays in aging Midway Stadium is considered a catalyst for revitalizing the downtown neighborhood.

But there almost certainly would be no ballpark if the state refused to pay almost half the $54 million cost of the project that had been awarded to Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. without a competitive bidding process.

Coleman didn't mention the governor in a news release, saying only that the city had reversed course in the "interest of transparency."

The mayor, who wasn't available for questions, said in the release that "this process will ensure the best outcome for the city, taxpayers and ultimately, the project."

Last month, city leaders celebrated at a festive news conference hours after Dayton announced the award of a $25 million state grant to the city for the project.

But what the governor giveth, he can also taketh away: The state's management and budget commissioner, who works for Dayton, has the authority to withhold grant money if there is a problem with a project.

2015 timetable intact

Pressure on the city also came from another sector -- the fiscally conservative Minnesota Taxpayers League and Greg Copeland, chairman of the St. Paul Republicans City Committee.

The two parties filed a lawsuit Friday in Ramsey County District Court seeking to halt the design-build process for the ballpark.

The lawsuit claimed the city violated state law and city ordinances in awarding the contract to Ryan without seeking bids.

"This just proves you can fight City Hall," Copeland said on Wednesday. "Despite the mayor claiming to have followed the law, this process made no sense to the public."

St. Paul leaders steadfastly maintained the contract award to Ryan was within the law. To support that position, the city released a three-page letter dated Wednesday from outside counsel detailing why the contract was legal.

City Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said "transparency and timing" and "a lot of interest," not the lawsuit, factored into the decision to seek bids.

Although the bidding for the St. Paul project is expected to take a few months, Hahm said the ballpark should still open in 2015 in Lowertown near the Farmers Market.

"We're at a point in the project where we can still go through a selection process for a design-builder," he said.

Vikings stadium was bid out

The Saints had chosen Ryan as a partner in developing a proposal for the ballpark before the team sought city and state aid for the project.

Saints Vice President Tom Whaley said he heard of the decision to open the contract for bids Tuesday night and spoke with a representative from Ryan. He said the company will submit a bid.

"We think [Ryan is] great, but if there's got to be a process, there's got to be a process," Whaley said. "We'd like to get going."

In a statement Wednesday, Ryan officials said they were "disappointed that the selection process has been redefined at such a late stage. We are confident Ryan is the right partner for the project and we will evaluate the [request for proposals] when it is issued to determine our approach."

The Minnesota Twins handled the selection process for Target Field.

A different method is being used for the $1 billion Minnesota Vikings stadium in Minneapolis.

Last month the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority announced the hiring of Dallas-based architect HKS Inc. to design the stadium, in a competition that included four other firms. A separate contract will be bid for construction.

Michele Kelm-Helgen, who leads the Sports Facilities Authority, said that "between the team and the authority, everyone agreed this is a big project and a public process, so everyone agreed to do this in steps."

The multiple contracts allow more public input into the design and give the authority more control over costs, she said.

For example, HKS originally bid $42 million on the project, but signed for $34 million. The amount was above the lowest submitted bid of $32 million, but cheaper than the initial HKS proposal.

"Having the multiple bids helped a lot because they knew they were competing," Kelm-Helgen said.

Lawsuit to be dropped

Taxpayers League lawyer Dean Thomson said that the league would drop its lawsuit against St. Paul.

"I'm glad the city decided to do what our lawsuit sought to accomplish," he said.

Under the financing plan, the Saints will pay $1.5 million cash and the city is expected to borrow $17 million through bonds. The city will pay off half the bonds with rent from the Saints and the other half primarily with city sales tax revenue.

The remainder of the money comes from several funds, including a land swap for the Lowertown ballpark site that gave the St. Paul Port Authority the team's current home at Midway Stadium.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson