At the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues in St. Paul on Tuesday around 6:30 p.m., I was stopped at a red light in the left turn lane. A man with a sign simply asking “please help” stood in the median. My 3-year-old daughter started to wave to him from the back seat while my 7-month old daughter drifted off into sleep. I froze for a couple seconds, then contorted in my seat to try to get my wallet out of my pocket to give him a dollar (knowing full well I could give him more, which is a different level of guilt). But the light turned green with a row of cars behind me. I made my left turn as the man stared blankly ahead.
My 3-year-old asked what the man had been doing there. I told her that he was asking for money because he was having a hard time — that he probably didn’t have enough money to afford a place to live or perhaps even buy food to eat. She replied that it was OK, he could just live under the stoplight. I told her that he was dry and warm for now, but in Minnesota it gets cold and rainy — and worse. Overnight, in fact, it did rain. I told her that I was going to try to give him a little money so he could buy some food, but that the light changed too soon. She thought about it for a few seconds and said, “When people don’t have enough money to buy food or a house, we should give them money.”
Two minutes later, we were inside a store where we bought $200 worth of groceries and other things. We went back to a house full of beds and comforts. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the exchange with my daughter, but it wasn’t until many hours later that I could attempt to connect the dots between what happened at that intersection and some other thoughts rattling around in my head about sports stadiums. Bear with me:
*The Twin Cities area has spent a lot of money — some might say too much — on many new and/or refurbished sports stadiums. This is not the fault of any one team — rather a one-by-one reflection of the times we live in — but it’s pretty staggering.
Consider that from 2009 through 2019 — a span of 10 years — the metro area did or will open a new college football stadium (TCF Bank Stadium, 2009), a new Twins ballpark (Target Field, 2010), a new St. Paul Saints ballpark (CHS Field, 2015), a new Vikings stadium (U.S. Bank, 2016), a remodeled Wolves/Lynx arena (Target Center, 2017) and a new United stadium (2019). Add in the new Gophers practice facilities/athletes village and don’t discount how nice Xcel Energy Center still is almost two decades after opening, and look at what we’ve done. It’s beautiful and staggering. It’s too excessive, however you choose to view the word. Whether the money was public, private or some combination, there was a choice made to spend billions of dollars on places for teams to play.
The Wild and Wolves could easily share an arena, as the NBA and NHL teams do in other markets. There was talk for a time of the Vikings and Gophers football combining on a new stadium — and this talk was going on while those two teams, plus the Twins, shared one building. Minnesota United could play in an existing venue instead of building its own facility. This is proven by the fact that one ownership group bid to have them play in U.S. Bank Stadium, while for now Loons are playing in TCF Bank Stadium.
*We have built too much and paid too much, but if we have done one thing right it’s this: at least we have built (or are building) these facilities in the right places. Every single new stadium built in that 10-year span is in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Each one is reasonably accessible from all corners of the sprawling metro area. Sure, it’s a haul to go from Plymouth to downtown St. Paul or from Woodbury to downtown Minneapolis. But you’re not trying to go from Plymouth to Woodbury, Lakeville to Blaine, or vice-versa. More importantly in the bigger picture, each of those facilities is accessible on the light rail and via other public transportation.
None of those teams, by virtue of where there stadiums/arenas are built, have decided to run away from the core of this metro area. When you go to any of them, you will know you are in a city. By extension, you will be confronted by the realities of a city — including people who are so less fortunate than you that they do not have a place to live or enough to eat, as was likely the case with the man Tuesday night holding the sign not far from where Minnesota United’s new stadium will be built.
These are all good things, even if they are not all pleasant things. Stadiums should be reasonably accessible for everyone. They should give you a sense of place. And they should remind us of the choices we have made when building them.
*I just got back a couple days ago from Atlanta, which for a long time had the same philosophy. The Falcons and Braves shared Fulton County Stadium for more than a quarter-century. Then the Falcons moved into the Georgia Dome and the Braves moved into Turner Field. The Hawks play in Philips Arena, which also hosted the Thrashers when they were in the NHL. All of those stadiums/arenas are in the downtown Atlanta core, as is the new Falcons stadium, which will also house Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United.
The Braves, though, are not. After 20 years at Turner Field (1997-2016), and after reaching an impasse with the city over staying there, the Braves began play this season at SunTrust Park in the suburbs.
Now, first: there is nothing wrong with the suburbs. I don’t live in one, but I go to the suburbs a lot. I have a lot of friends who live in various suburbs, and they are good, happy people. There are plenty of good reason to decide to live in one.
But the Braves’ move to the northwest suburbs was notable for many reasons, several of which are nicely summarized in this Forbes piece from four years ago when the plans were announced. Essentially, they moved to a less racially diverse area that is less accessible from various other parts of an already sprawling metro area that is TERRIBLE when it comes to traffic. It was a symbolic move, even if it wasn’t intentionally so.
The new ballpark, which I visited Sunday for a Braves/Brewers game, is nice enough. (Photo above of the sparse crowd is from just before first pitch). It was described perfectly by another member of our Great Baseball Road trip as, “If Coors Field and Target Field had a baby, but then they forgot they needed lights and got them at a Jacobs (Progressive) Field garage sale.” We went on a weekend, when traffic was not as much of a problem, but I cannot imagine what it’s like to attend a weeknight game after spending more than 90 minutes trying to make it 35 miles both Thursday and Friday in the Atlanta area. It might not be any worse than trying to get to Turner Field on a weeknight, but the perception exists that it is.
The best local comparison for the ballpark location and surroundings — which sprang from an empty lot as far as I’ve been told — is if you dropped a new baseball stadium right in the middle of the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove. Outside of SunTrust Park, you are not confronted by anything other than more opportunities to buy things. Our parking for the game was $50, but they validate the whole thing if you buy $50 worth of stuff at the surrounding bars/restaurants/shops (which we did, playing right into their design, by eating and drinking perfectly nice but not memorable at all meals and beverages at Establishment X postgame).
I’ve been told by a few Atlanta locals — some of whom wrote to me after I wrote the other day about the Braves’ unspectacular attendance in spite of this new ballpark — that the bad traffic combined with the distance from a lot of parts of the metro area has led plenty of residents to already conclude “why bother” when it comes to trying to see the Braves. Atlanta struggled to support even the best Braves teams of the 1990s and 2000s when they were more centrally located, and putting them further away at a spot where two congested freeways meet might not be helping.
If you don’t mind the commercialism and don’t want to get a feel for the city you’re in when you attend a game, it’s fine. You can even build a case for the ballpark creating a residual economic benefit from construction and other new development near it. But you still have to wrap your head around approving $400 million in public money for a new stadium 17 years after starting play in another new stadium, and doing it in a city that in many years is ranked as having the largest income disparity between rich and poor in the nation.
But what do I know? It might just be my guilt talking, but I’m still inclined to agree with a 3-year-old in thinking that people who don’t have money and a place to live should get our help, too, because they sure can’t live under stoplights.