Maybe it was because a holiday weekend was approaching, or the suspicion that St. Paul is just getting played as a potential home for Major League Soccer. Or maybe, after years of sports facilities springing up on both sides of the river, it was just plain old stadium fatigue.
Whatever the reason, neither St. Paul nor Minneapolis officials seemed especially energized Thursday by the news that the league was going to explore possible stadium sites in St. Paul now that the July 1 deadline has passed for a stadium plan in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges kept the door open to a possible stadium deal, saying that the league had not contacted her office but that she “would be happy to meet with them if they ask.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said to be out of town with family and unavailable for comment, said nothing at all. His staff referred reporters to his previous statement that he would work hard to make soccer happen if MLS officials pursue a stadium in St. Paul.
And an afternoon meeting planned by Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, fizzled because no one was around, he said.
But Kramer said that a Midway-area site had already emerged as a favorite of the local investor group leading the soccer charge: the 34½-acre bus barn/shopping center site at Snelling and University avenues.
“If there’s a transportation trifecta, it’s there — on the freeway, on the light-rail line and the [future] bus rapid transit line on Snelling Avenue,” Kramer said.
The local investors who want to build a $120 million stadium for a Minnesota franchise are led by Dr. Bill McGuire, former chief executive of UnitedHealth Group who owns the soccer team Minnesota United FC. They include the Pohlad family, which owns the Minnesota Twins, and Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Star Tribune.
MLS officials have expressed a preference to play in downtown Minneapolis, but Kramer pointed out that the Midway site is equidistant from both downtowns. And while the Midway Shopping Center and most of the site is owned by a New York-based property management firm, a good chunk of it — about 10 acres — is held by Metro Transit and has been tax-exempt for decades.
That alone could make the Midway site more attractive than another site that’s been mentioned: the Sears store and parking lots on Rice Street near the State Capitol. Sears officials announced plans two years ago for a mixed-use development there but have said little about it since, and could not be reached for comment Thursday.
St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune said he has told Coleman that he would support city efforts to locate a Minnesota soccer franchise in St. Paul, including property and sales tax exemptions — “anything the city could authorize,” he said, “other than writing them a check.”
“We don’t want to get into a bidding war with Minneapolis, but if they want to come to us. … We’re not going to chase you, but if you want to get married, look us up,” Thune said.
Twists and turns
MLS officials announced in March that Minneapolis had been awarded an expansion franchise in the 20-team league. At that time, league and team officials talked about housing the team in a new downtown stadium, and the league set a July 1 deadline for establishing a financing plan.
But the Legislature adjourned without considering a public subsidy package proposed by the investors, and city officials have disagreed on whether tax breaks should be provided.
In a radio interview Wednesday, MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said that since the July 1 deadline had passed without a plan, he would meet with St. Paul officials before the league decides to look outside Minnesota for a new franchise home.
It’s hard to know whether the league is seriously considering St. Paul, or whether it’s simply applying more pressure on Minneapolis to come up with a financing plan.
In her statement, Hodges said that she was “pleased that Minnesota United wants to bring a $150 million investment to downtown Minneapolis, which as a location has so much to offer.”
“These sports stadium discussions take a lot of twists and turns, so you just have to kind of expect that as part of the process,” said Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a veteran of city politics.
Cramer said that downtown Minneapolis has more to offer than St. Paul in the way of transit access, a stronger economy and proximity to west-metro population centers.
“I also think there are some fundamentals about a downtown Minneapolis location for them that will always be superior,” he said.
League commissioners have frequently inserted themselves into local stadium discussions to apply pressure.
In 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell traveled to the State Capitol to insist that the Vikings stadium issue be resolved soon. And in 2002, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig publicly mused about the prospect of a St. Paul Twins’ stadium as Minneapolis struggled to craft a deal.
“I understand that St. Paul is the most aggressive candidate,” Selig said at the time. “If that’s the way it turns out, then you have to say that’s the place for it to be built.”
Whatever happens, you can’t give up, Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega said. He and fellow commissioner Tony Bennett battled in vain to persuade the Vikings to build a new stadium on the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site in Arden Hills.
“You don’t stop going up to bat because you struck out the last three times. That sounds un-American to me,” Ortega said.