At what point does flirtation become courtship?
That's the question some in St. Paul were asking Tuesday as Mayor Chris Coleman for the first time took a top Major League Soccer (MLS) official on a tour of a potential soccer stadium site in the city's Midway neighborhood.
What wasn't known as Coleman showed off his city is just how serious MLS and Bill McGuire, owner of Minnesota United, are about putting a professional soccer team in St. Paul after initially eyeing a stadium site in downtown Minneapolis.
Before heading to Midway, MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott and Coleman met at the city's new baseball park — where Coleman touted the type of success he foresees for a proposed soccer stadium at Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94.
During a short press briefing at CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball team, Coleman said he was at the game Monday night when Saints set a single season attendance record in their shiny new Lowertown neighborhood ballpark.
"And I watched those crowds pour out into the neighborhood, get on the light-rail line afterward and just create a vitality that is just shocking how wonderful this is," Coleman said. "I think we need to have that same kind of investment in the Midway area."
For his part, Abbott said he was "excited" about the opportunity to talk with St. Paul officials and tour the Midway site, 10 acres that once housed a bus barn and that have been off the tax rolls for decades. Abbott said the site seems to offer the promise that MLS seeks for its stadiums, one with related development that can attract fans to more than just the games.
"That has an opportunity to be a tremendous site for a new MLS stadium," said Abbott, a 1982 graduate of Tartan High School in Oakdale.
Abbott said the site is the only one he will visit this trip.
Offering its own intrigue was the fact that McGuire and Minnesota United team president Nick Rogers were seen entering offices to meet with Coleman and Abbott before the press briefing. But the team officials stayed out of sight during the briefing.
Coleman was asked if St. Paul is being used to sweeten a potential deal that MLS might eventually make with the city of Minneapolis, a suspicion among some who have pointed out that St. Paul has lost out in stadium games before.
Both Coleman and Abbott insisted that MLS is not using St. Paul as a foil to spur stadium interest across the river, where the ownership group led by McGuire first looked at a site in the North Loop. When that plan stalled, the team and MLS said they were ready to talk to St. Paul.
McGuire, whose group would pay to build the stadium, had asked Minneapolis to exempt the stadium from property taxes. Coleman has talked about similar tax breaks to help entice the team to Midway. Such steps need legislative approval, but Coleman said he is confident that the Legislature would approve the needed tax breaks if the owners and MLS approved it.
Abbott said the MLS needs a site that can accommodate about 20,000 fans and that has easy access to transit. The Midway site is just off the Green Line light-rail transit route, a bus line and I-94. Related development in the area is seen as a critical component to making it all work.
All of which led some back to the question: Just how serious is all this?
"I am not quite sure why they held a news conference when they can't really announce anything," said Chad Kulas, executive director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of people are in favor of it generally. But many think it's just going to wind up in Minneapolis in the end."
At a meeting Tuesday night of the Union Park District Council, discussion centered not only on a soccer stadium on the bus barn site, but how it would fit with overall mixed use, transit-oriented development that is coveted for the entire 34.5-acre "superblock" that includes Midway Shopping Center.
Neighbors at the meeting shared concerns about an increase in traffic and parking congestion. They also expressed fears that a soccer stadium might not generate any immediate, nearby development.
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.