A century ago, the Lowertown district in downtown St. Paul served as an industrial and manufacturing focal point for the city. As we evolved from an industrial to technological society, however, many plants closed, and the area was left to carve out a new identity.
Today Lowertown is a hub for artists, a Farmers' Market, condos and restaurants. But the area is still in transition from its industrial past, and more significant development is needed. One promising site is the home of the shuttered Gillette factory across from the Farmers' Market.
City leaders wisely want to use the property for a new regional ballpark that would be the new home for the St. Paul Saints minor-league baseball team. It's a polluted site with limited options for reuse, but a good match for a 7,500-seat ballpark. The Central Corridor light-rail line will feed into the site.
The ballpark is seen as so critical to the downtown's economic development plans that city leaders have made the new $54 million facility their No. 1 legislative priority, Mayor Chris Coleman told the Star Tribune Editorial Board last month.
The city has requested $27 million in bonding from the state, which Gov. Mark Dayton has included in his bonding proposal. The Saints have committed $10 million, and the city would cover the remaining costs.
"The business community is solidly behind this," said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. "This will draw lot of other people into Lowertown, which generates economic vitality for other businesses in a core part of downtown. When people look at economic development investments, this is in keeping with the kind of projects the Legislature has supported for cities."
St. Paul officials want the new ballpark to fuel excitement about downtown, but also to maintain the character of Lowertown. Their plans call for the ballpark to feature the work of local artists on a rotating basis. Kramer predicts that downtown businesses will also use the ballpark in employee recruitment and retention efforts.
Dayton has referred to the proposed Minnesota Vikings stadium as a "people's stadium." In that spirit, the Saints have long been a more affordable pro sports attraction for ordinary people. Instead of million-dollar athletes, players' salaries average $1,800 per month. Hot dogs sell for $2.50, and some general-admission tickets are priced as low as $4. City leaders promise those low prices would continue in a new ballpark.
The fan experience is lacking in the team's current home, the grossly inadequate Midway Stadium. Fans are inconvenienced because the space for concessions and indoor restrooms is insufficient. Who wants to plunk down hard-earned dollars for a game only to miss two or three innings standing in line at a portable toilet or trying to purchase a hot dog?
Players face unreasonable challenges at Midway, too. The field sinks in the outfield, there are only tiny cubbyholes for gear and a hallway serves as the workout area. The dingy stadium is inadequate for both the professional and amateur teams that use it.
Besides 57 Saints games, Midway Stadium hosted dozens of events last year, including competitions involving high schools, the American Legion, colleges and others. The new ballpark would continue that accessibility, though it's our hope that greater opportunities would open up for female athletes.
Sen. Geoff Michel, an Edina Republican, said the Saints have put their stadium proposal forward in a smart and strategic way.
"They've made it bipartisan," he said. "They've got their local chamber leading the way. They've raised private funds. They've got a strong local partner in the city of St. Paul. They have stepped up so it almost stands in good contrast with the Vikings stadium drama. This is how to do a stadium."
Let's hope Michel can convince his legislative colleagues that the regional project is worthy of their support.
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