Last week, a local billionaire and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman got together to show some love for an abandoned bus barn in a shopworn area of Coleman’s city, now apparently the favored site to build a new soccer stadium.
The notion that the second city was about to snatch away a prominent development from Minneapolis made St. Paulites as giddy as they’ve been since Pablo Pigasso was named official mascot of the Saints. It also churned discussions about the economic impact of the stadium and the political machinations that led to the hasty news conference with Coleman and Minnesota United FC owner Dr. Bill McGuire, whose partners include the Pohlad family and Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor.
This was supposed to be a Minneapolis deal, a venue dropped into a sports district where Taylor and the Pohlads already owned franchises, a gleaming facility with that coveted skyline “hero shot” that looks good on television.
But Minneapolis responded to what most agree was the best stadium deal to ever be offered in this town with a working group that didn’t work and a mayor that seemed, at least in public, uninterested or even hostile to the project.
“She showed, maybe not animosity, but pretty close,” said one Minneapolis official who wanted the stadium in the North Loop. “This is like everything that is bad about politics. [The] city did not have to do anything, all we needed to do was not be total … (let’s paraphrase here for our G-rated audience) jerks.”
Several sources close to the deal said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges painted herself into a corner as soon as she entered the discussion and “couldn’t go back.”
“She personally defined ‘subsidy’ without any assessment of the deal,” said one source. “It’s very easy to do two things in Minneapolis, be anti-stadium and anti-rich people.”
Hodges had not said much publicly about how the deal went sour, but Friday night while waiting to participate in the University of Minnesota’s homecoming festivities, she seemed eager to share her side of the story.
Yes, she wants the stadium and yes, she thinks it would work best in Minneapolis and yes, she realizes the ownership group is paying a hefty portion of the cost. But she said she is determined the city get the best deal it can, and said she also has worked behind the scenes with other stakeholders to secure the deal.
Things broke bad when the soccer ownership group went first to the Legislature and said, “this is what we want to do in Minneapolis, without talking to Minneapolis,” Hodges said. “It was a very strong opening they made to go to the state, without Minneapolis, and my move was equally strong.”
Hodges said it was McGuire, not her, who tried to define what constitutes a subsidy when he argued that creating a tax abatement district “into perpetuity” was not really a freebie.
“It’s more than the other [professional teams] got, and we know there will be growth and development” in the area, Hodges said. “To not think that is a public subsidy is wrong. I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ ”
But nobody says “Hey, wait a minute” to someone who has a lot of screw-you money. I know people who have dealt with McGuire, and my educated guess is that his idea of negotiation is that he tells you what he wants and you say “Yes, sir.”
Hodges’ first strong move might be her last.
One person who approves was one of her Republican opponents for mayor, Cam Winton. “Three cheers for Mayor Betsy for having the guts to tell the billionaires to build their own dang stadium with their own dang money. Seriously — I’m impressed,” he said.
While it seemed like there was no sense of urgency in Minneapolis, Coleman showed his typical “all-in” attitude when the league’s expired deadline gave him an opening. His city’s strong-mayor structure also allows Coleman to get most of what he wants.
Blong Yang, a Minneapolis City Council member, said Hodges’ disaffection for the project “seemed much deeper” than simply not wanting to excuse some taxes for wealthy people, but he can’t say why.
Mike Opat, a Hennepin County commissioner in favor of the deal, said McGuire and the Pohlads were “offended” by Hodges’ dealings.
Well boohoo. Hodges is right to try to get a good deal and the group can certainly afford to pay for the whole cost of the toy without help. However, they’d make history by being the first tycoons in history to do so.
Downtown businessman Mark Oyaas wrote to a coalition of entities promoting North Loop development: “If this St. Paul location is how it ends, it is a colossal failure on many levels. A successful [Farmers Market] project requires a catalyst and maybe the lesson for the mayor will be not to thumb her nose at opportunity where it next surfaces.”
Hodges said Friday that she has her hand out, thumb firmly attached, looking for an earnest hand back to try putting the project where most agree it belongs. But as one Minneapolis businessman said: “Nothing is going to happen unless the two sides put their mutual petulance in a box.”