St. Paul scored big Monday with Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, who came to the city to inspect a potential stadium site and talk with political heavyweights about what needs to be done before shovels hit the dirt.

“I wanted to take a look at the Midway site. And I am very impressed with it. … It really has the opportunity to be transformational in bringing these two great cities together,” said Garber, who added that a soccer stadium on a 10-acre site at Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94 could be “wildly successful.”

Still, Garber made it clear that St. Paul isn’t yet a done deal. And he said that a decision on a stadium location might not be made until the league’s meeting in December.

Speaking in a radio interview and to reporters at Mears Park, Garber said it could be weeks or even months before the many details are worked out. Negotiations on a possible lease of the property by the city or the St. Paul Port Authority may continue for some time, and tax relief needs to be approved by the Legislature.

But Garber had nothing but praise for the transit-friendly site as a potential 18,500-seat home for Minnesota United FC, the minor league franchise owned by Bill McGuire and a group of investors who were awarded a coveted shot at joining the MLS last winter.

Mayor Chris Coleman took Garber around the city Monday and to a meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton, who expressed his support for tax relief for the Midway site should team owners build a $120 million stadium there with private money.

In an interview broadcast Monday on ESPN 1500, Garber noted the site’s virtues to Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse: it’s vacant, equidistant between the two downtowns, close to transit and diverse neighborhoods, and loaded with character and development potential.

“It seems like it really makes sense to me. … We’ll meet with Bill and his guys over the next weeks and months and see what we can do to get this finalized,” Garber said.

Minneapolis in hunt

McGuire and his investors, who would build the stadium and foot the bill for the franchise fee, at first had hoped for a site near the Farmers Market. The North Loop area already hosts franchises owned by the Pohlad family and Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor, who are among McGuire’s partners in the venture.

The ownership group expressed a desire for a property tax break and an exemption from sales taxes on construction materials for the new stadium. But Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges batted down those options, saying they amounted to public subsidies. When a July 1 deadline set by MLS for a stadium plan passed without action by Minneapolis, Coleman invited the owners and the league to consider the Midway site.

Garber mentioned Minneapolis only in passing Monday and said there had been no recent conversations with leaders there, but he didn’t close the door either.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who has said the county is ready to work with owners on a stadium package, said he feels certain that they will resume those talks.

“We have stepped up, we’ve been in discussions, we’ve been in productive negotiations. I remain confident that they’ll want to talk again,” he said.

As for the sites themselves, Opat said: “I don’t have any firm opinion on the St. Paul site, except to say that I believe the Farmers Market site is clearly superior.”

A spokeswoman for Hodges said Monday that a precise date for the second meeting of the city’s stadium working group is still being determined. And an option held by a team-affiliated developer to buy most of the Minneapolis property expired three weeks ago.

“Generally speaking, a work group should do work. And this one hasn’t yet,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, who has been supportive of striking a deal for the Minneapolis site.

Work left to do

The Star Tribune reported two weeks ago that St. Paul appeared to be the choice of team officials as the new home for its stadium, to be built on a site once used for a bus facility.

That deal was expected to include a practice facility at the National Sports Center in Blaine, where the team now plays in a minor league capacity and draws 8,000 to 9,000 fans per game. A Sports Center spokesman confirmed that it was talking with Minnesota United officials about the training facility.

The St. Paul site would come with challenges, including parking. Officials have said a city-owned ramp could be expanded and an adjacent corporate tenant could build a ramp for business use during the day and soccer fans at night. There are 4,000 parking spaces within six blocks of the site.

The site is near a Green Line light-rail station, at University and Snelling avenues, and an enhanced bus rapid transit line planned for Snelling. Twenty-five percent of fans now take mass transit to Twins and Vikings games.

MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott met with Coleman and McGuire during a visit on Aug. 12. Since then, the St. Paul City Council and Ramsey County commissioners have backed a property tax exemption for the site for a privately built stadium.

Meanwhile the St. Paul Port Authority, an independent agency that often works with the city on development projects, began talking with the Metropolitan Council, which owns the site, about leasing it for the stadium with the proceeds going to regional transit operations.

Garber said Monday that it was likely that once a stadium location was nailed down, the team would likely begin playing in the MLS at a temporary location until the new facility was ready.

“We’ve got some work to do before we make that decision,” he said.

 

Staff writers Eric Roper and James Walsh contributed to this report.