St. Paul leaders hugged and hollered almost like World Series winners Thursday after snagging the state grant needed to build a new Saints ballpark as the centerpiece of the city's up-and-coming Lowertown area.
The city received the biggest chunk -- $25 million -- among the nine projects that divvied up $47.5 million in state economic development grants.
"Welcome, everybody, to the site of a new Lowertown ballpark," a grinning city Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said at a sunny, applause-filled news conference near the Farmers Market.
The ballpark promised at least 248 jobs, including 225 in construction. It also is expected to bring 400,000 visitors to Lowertown and $10 million a year to the city, according to the grant application.
Absent was vacationing Mayor Chris Coleman, who tweeted a photo from Italy of himself and his wife, Connie, holding big glasses of celebratory red wine.
The ballpark award was $2 million short of the $27 million the city sought for the $54 million ballpark, but no one complained. Team president Mike Veeck tweeted "All Saints Day" and said in a phone interview, "A win is a win, and I'm just appreciative."
Other big grant winners included Duluth, which got $8.5 million for downtown development; Wadena, which received $4.2 million for a public health and wellness facility destroyed in a 2010 tornado, and Litchfield, which received $2.3 million for a wastewater improvement project.
All nine projects scored well on evaluations by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) with the exception of one. The Southwest Light-Rail Transit Corridor got $2 million -- after heavy lobbying by the Metropolitan Council.
The GOP-controlled Legislature created the DEED pot after dramatically downsizing Gov. Mark Dayton's 2012 bonding request. Even as he announced the grants, Dayton made clear his disdain for the amount he could disburse. The governor said he had "made the best lemonade possible under the circumstances."
He noted that he had 90 grant requests totaling $288 million -- close to the $264 million in additional bonding he wanted from the 2012 legislative session. He said he "seriously regrets" not being able to fund projects in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.
Baseball, concerts, carnival
In St. Paul, the full-throttle party was on for a city that often feels like the lesser twin. City officials had to stand by and watch earlier this year as Minneapolis won the new Minnesota Vikings stadium and tax help for Target Center.
St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer said, "I'm going to say what everyone's thinking: It's a great day to be in downtown freakin' St. Paul."
The chamber led the lobbying effort for the project Kramer said means a healthy business climate for the city for the next two to three decades.
The plan is to build a 7,000-seat ballpark to play host to 50 Saints home games and at least twice as many amateur games, including high school and American Legion games. The chatter is already about bringing concerts and Winter Carnival events to the park.
Long a haven for artists, Lowertown has become a coveted address in St. Paul, home to trendy restaurants and housing at luxury and market rates. The city-built Farmers Market Lofts filled to capacity as soon as they were ready. The Central Corridor light-rail line will begin gliding through to the Union Depot in 2014. Veeck said the ballpark should be ready by 2015.
Another benefit: the land swap for the ballpark site that gave the city Port Authority the team's current home at Midway Stadium. The authority intends to convert it to a "job developer with highly sought-after railroad access," Coleman's application said.
Where to find $2 million
In the financing plan, the Saints pay $1.5 million cash. The city is expected to bond for $17 million divided equally between two issuances. The city will pay off one with rent from the Saints. The other half will be paid primarily from city sales tax revenue. The remainder of the money comes from several funds, including the land swap.
City finance director Todd Hurley said the city will have to decide later whether to scale back the project to account for the $2 million shortfall or seek additional money elsewhere.
The shortfall matches the amount given to the light-rail corridor planned from Minneapolis to its southwestern suburbs. Dayton called that a coincidence but said DEED's evaluation of the corridor didn't "adequately reflect [the corridor's] overall jobs impact." It was the one project that overcame a low evaluation.
Met Council regional administrator Pat Born said the agency received word of the low ranking on Monday at the same time as the public. "Were we desperate? We were disappointed, but we didn't think a decision had been made," Born said. Council leaders sought $14 million and worked mightily this week to woo Dayton for the $2 million they received.
The money, which goes toward preparatory engineering work on the project, keeps it in the competitive line for the $625 million needed in federal funding, Born said.
Southwest rail 'limping along'
The governor stopped short of saying the money indicated his support for the completion of the project -- nor would he commit to putting more money in his proposed 2013 bonding bill.
The modest funding fuels persistent doubts about the state's commitment to help fund the $1.25 billion project. The Federal Transit Administration is willing to pay half the cost but requires state and local governments to come up with the rest. Backers have assured the FTA that the state would pay 10 percent of the cost, but the state has committed only $7 million of its $125 million share with the latest award.
"It keeps things limping along until the next legislative session," said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee and a critic of the project.
Backers applauded Dayton's decision.
"We needed that signal that we could move forward with this," Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said.
Future state funding could hinge on control of the Legislature, where Republican majorities have taken a dim view of light rail. The next two legislative sessions will be critical because the agency will need a state commitment before it signs an agreement with the federal government at the beginning of construction.
"What will happen in the next legislative session will really depend on what happens in the next election," Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said.
The celebration in St. Paul continues Sept. 22 from noon to 2 p.m. in Mears Park. Coleman will be there.