Michael Cleaver gazed through a stand of trees toward the epicenter of the Vikings stadium debate and pronounced it a "perfect place for a stadium."
Then he added one large caveat about the Arden Hills industrial eyesore in line to become a roomy mecca for tailgating fans. "It's a great idea," said Cleaver, who lives near the site. "It's just, why are we paying for it?"
From the neighborhood around the old Army ammo plant, selected by the Vikings for their new home, to downtown St. Paul, which usually jumps to steal big developments from Minneapolis, there is serious conflict in Ramsey County about the football stadium plan. Many believe the location is made to order for the heroic scale befitting the National Football League and represents the best chance to turn dirty land to good use. But local opposition is forming around the public spending for the sports palace, including a countywide half-cent sales tax hike, much of which would come from spending in the capital city.
An ad hoc group of residents plan to push ahead with a petition drive to put the half-cent sales issue on a countywide ballot next year. More than a dozen people met for more than three hours Tuesday to begin working out the details, said Ady Wickstrom, a Shoreview City Council member and a lead organizer. Organizers have to resolve some legal issues and then decide whether to push for a referendum to amend the county charter or pass an ordinance, she said.
The hope is to get the petition drive started before the Legislature goes into a special session to decide the stadium issue, Wickstrom said. "Basically we want to send a message to let them know we're serious about this and show them we have people behind us."
As Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators move toward a decision, such tensions in the project's back yard is coming to the fore.
"There is not an ounce of benefit that would come to the city of St. Paul from an Arden Hills facility,'' said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who, along with the City Council, is fighting the sales tax hike. Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said the project will create permanent jobs and is "one of the best uses of the land possible." He, too, is wary of the tax and hopes different funding emerges.
Cleaver is from Manchester, England. He married an American and lives across County Road I from the northern edge of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant property that includes the stadium site. He works in real estate and jousted with Vikings officials at public hearings, pointing out that the famed Manchester United soccer club built its stadium without government help. "None of the stadiums over there are paid for with public money, and there's hundreds of them,'' he said.
Cleaver said it's ironic that England, which embraces expansive social welfare programs, rejects public subsidies for sports, but the United States, where the free market ideal is dominant, does not.
At the same time, Cleaver sees the appeal of the site -- crossed by major highways and freeways, equidistant from St. Paul and Minneapolis, and desperately in need of a makeover from its heyday of making bullets for soldiers. "If we don't put a stadium there, we're going to look at this for the next 50 years,'' he said.
The 2,400-acre former Army site now encompasses scenic natural areas, newer government facilities and the deserted buildings, grass-crusted pavement slabs and hazardous waste problems of the past. The stadium plan, advanced by the team and Ramsey County, would be to build on the southern portion, the area most in need of redoing.
Across Hwy. 10 from the Vikings' preferred Ramsey County home, James Welsch, manager and son of the owner of Welsch's Big Ten Tavern, thinks it is a great idea.
The possibility of construction workers getting back to work, roads being fixed and the area getting a "kick" economically appeals to him. "It's a good idea for the area,'' he said. "It's a bunch of land that is going to waste.''
Welsch said state and local governments often help local businesses with major projects, and believes the sales tax hike makes sense. "They do it with projects all the time,'' he said.
Down the road from the tavern, mobile home park resident Dennis Morelan paused from raking leaves one day this week to give the Ramsey County plan the thumps up.
"I think it's a good idea," he said. "St. Paul and Minneapolis ain't fighting over it. Neither one of them has the facilities where they can park." Plus, "there are thousands of ways of getting here."
The site is surrounded by rivers of traffic, much of it zipping past the tree-lined neighborhoods of Arden Hills and Shoreview, and residents say the roads need updating, stadium or no. Up Hwy. 96 at Arden Hills City Hall, Mayor David Grant did not clearly say whether he favors the project or not. But he did say the city is working with the county to study it. "We're cautiously optimistic that the governor will be able to move this forward, that the property will be remediated and put into productive use," Grant said.
Shoreview resident Pam Gall, a nursing assistant who lives just north of the site, said she worries about traffic overwhelming her neighborhood and says the economy has been difficult for her family. A new half-cent sales tax hike will not help, she said.
"We look at our kids and say, 'Why should they be burdened with having to pay for it?'... They won't be able to afford to go to a game," she said.
St. Paul officials agree -- the proposed tax smacks the wrong folks. While Interstate 35W leads straight from the site to the hotels and watering holes of Minneapolis, Hwy. 10 and I-694 lead, less directly, to St. Paul, where the sales tax hike would hit hard. The St. Paul City Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the sales tax this summer.
Coleman sees no hypocrisy in his current position against the tax, even though he once sought to lure a tax-supported Twins stadium from Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. Unlike a St. Paul baseball stadium, he said, a football stadium in Arden Hills would not benefit St. Paul any more than any other metro community. He has argued for funding such projects primarily with a statewide tax rather than the Ramsey County sales tax hike, which, he said, would give St. Paul the "competitive disadvantage" of having the metro area's highest sales tax.
"To me, this is no different than saying Iowa wants to tax Minnesota to build a light-rail system," Coleman said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042