A power struggle potentially involving millions in public and corporate money has intensified since the end of the NCAA Final Four over who should be in charge of developing and organizing future high-profile events in the Twin Cities.
The nonprofit Minnesota Sports Corp., which served as the local organizing committee for the Final Four, wants to recast itself as a “Regional Events Catalyst” to develop events and enhance those already coming. With that goal in mind, Kate Mortenson, CEO of Minnesota Sports Corp., has hired a lobbyist to promote the effort and is seeking $2 million in state funding to maintain the organization with the same Final Four staff.
But opposing that plan are convention bureaus for the metro area’s biggest cities: Meet Minneapolis, Visit St. Paul and the Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau. Meet Minneapolis has hired its own lobbyist to quash Mortenson’s plan to create the new regional group.
Mortenson’s plan is raising questions about the need to spend public and corporate money on an organization that would compete with similar groups already in place, and which have proved successful in drawing events like baseball’s All-Star Game, the X Games and the Super Bowl.
A board meeting is scheduled Monday to discuss the future of Minnesota Sports Corp., but Mortenson said those discussions are private and wouldn’t comment on them. Mortenson, who is paid a six-figure salary, says her own role has yet to be determined.
Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis, questioned the need for Minnesota Sports Corp. — on whose board he sits — to continue. His convention bureau is the state’s largest, with 70 full-time staffers and an annual budget of $14 million, nearly 30% of it in public funding.
“I will continue to advocate [the Meet Minneapolis] board’s position, that another organization is unnecessary,” he said Friday.
Terry Mattson, CEO and president of Visit St. Paul, said the region “would be better served by enhancing what already exists rather than spending on another, new organization.” Such a group, he said last week, would be a “step backwards in what already brings success. That’s just working cross purpose to what we really need here.”
Bonnie Carlson, CEO of Bloomington’s convention bureau, said the three bureaus work together well, as shown by the recent success of the Super Bowl, the Ryder Cup and the NCAA Final Four. “We frequently partner … to attract and execute both large and smaller events,” she said.
Mortenson said the convention bureaus have a “lack of understanding” about what she’s trying to do: create a “Regional Events Catalyst” to help events “reach their fullest potential.”
“Resistance to a regional approach may underscore the need for a more regional approach,” she said.
The concept came not from a similar example elsewhere, she said, but from a study by consultant McKinsey & Co. for the Itasca Project, a group of local business leaders that focuses on regional competitiveness.
Mortenson said the new organization would be Minnesota’s “missing link,” a “boots on the ground” group that would be “ready to take the handoff for the execution of large events.” She said members of the Minnesota Sports Corp. board thought it important to “codify” the organization now in order to retain the current staff.
Continuing the momentum
Ward Einess, former state revenue commissioner under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was hired by Meet Minneapolis to lobby against Mortenson’s plan. He noted that the funding request has taken a “very unorthodox path” at the Legislature, bypassing the usual committee hearings and “parachut[ing] in” late in the session without public process or comment.
Mortenson responded: “There’s no doubt it’s late innings here, but sometimes interest and opportunity line up.”
In addition to her request for state money, Mortenson has sent letters to the heads of some of the state’s biggest corporations seeking millions in private donations. The corporations contacted include Medtronic, Delta Dental of Minnesota, Target Corp., Land O’Lakes, Ecolab, Xcel Energy and Polaris.
Most of the corporate leaders either declined to comment for this story or didn’t respond, but two said they support Mortenson’s plans, including Bert Colianni, CEO of the Pohlad Cos.
“My personal hope is we can build on this as a region,” Colianni said, referring to the Final Four tournament. “I’d like to see the momentum continue.”
Jim Dwyer, CEO of 8th Avenue Food & Provisions, is a prime supporter. He coordinated the McKinsey study for the Itasca Project, and he said Mortenson’s plan is needed, though adding that neither he nor Itasca is lobbying for it.
“We don’t have a coordinating body that coordinates everything across the region,” Dwyer said. He said his subcommittee presented the report to the Itasca board, which voted to put it on their website even though it doesn’t endorse specific projects.
‘A robust discussion’
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding Mortenson’s plans are potential cuts in existing state tourism grants. Gov. Tim Walz didn’t include in his budget proposal $2 million usually given to Explore Minnesota, money that traditionally has helped with events across the state. Tennant, Carlson and Mattson said restoring that funding is a priority.
Tennant is among three Minnesota Sports Corp. board members who were concerned enough that they signed a letter last week calling for an immediate meeting of the Minnesota Sports Corp. board. The letter is addressed to Minnesota Sports Corp. co-chairs Mary Brainerd, retired president and CEO of HealthPartners, and David Mortenson, chairman of Mortenson Construction, past chairman of Itasca and Kate Mortenson’s husband.
Tennant said that, to his recollection, there was never an “explicit discussion regarding repurposing Minnesota Sports Corp.” into a permanent operation, and that Meet Minneapolis has an experienced staff that has worked on events ranging from the Republican National Convention in 2008 to the Super Bowl last year. It’s involved in planning for next year’s NCAA men’s wrestling Final Four, he said.
In the letter, he and others request “clarity” regarding “what the board has authorized regarding activity at the state legislature and what are actions undertaken by individuals on the board on their own volition.”
Among the signers of the letter: Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chairman Michael Vekich, who oversees U.S. Bank Stadium on behalf of taxpayers, and Mark Ruff, chief financial officer for the city of Minneapolis.
On Friday, Vekich said he wouldn’t comment until he gets more information, possibly at the meeting set for Monday. But Tennant said he expects a “robust discussion” about the future of Minnesota Sports Corp.