Mayor Chris Coleman and MLS Commissioner Don Garber in Mears Park, St. Paul.

Mayor Chris Coleman and MLS Commissioner Don Garber in Mears Park, St. Paul. Photo by Brian Quarstad

Minnesota Soccer History, The Angle

Pride and Prejudice: A Minnesota United Stadium Story – Part III

by on 18 August 2016

The Complete DarknessIn preparation for Minnesota United’s MLS announcement this coming Friday, FiftyFive.One is bringing you a three part series that originally appeared in its entirety in the 2015 year in review book of Minnesota United called the Complete Darkness. It’s published by FiftyFive.One’s parent company, Byline Press. There are still copies available which can be ordered here.

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

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Part III: Behind the scenes in St. Paul

Matt Kramer, executive director of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, said there was a concert of offices and individuals who were working hard on the St. Paul side of things to make the stadium a reality in the Saintly City.

“These projects always have cycles. One day you are on the top of the world and the next day the thing is going to hell in a handbasket.
Matt Kramer

There were phases when we were asking ourselves, ‘How do we actually make this work?’ The St. Paul Port Authority really took the leadership role. We built the public education and the public enthusiasm. Having the Port Authority that could do land evaluation, they are experts on site contamination cleanup, all of that work was going on behind the scenes where they were using their resources and knowledge to say can the site now work? We were convinced it would work on a practical level but we had to get more detailed. We had questions like how much is this thing going to cost? What are the legal ramifications for the Federal Transit Administration who apparently for some convoluted way still has some degree of site control over the former bus barn site even though it doesn’t exist anymore. Having the Port Authority available to do all that behind the scenes work was invaluable. If there is a hidden asset in St. Paul and it’s not really very hidden it’s the Port Authority. It’s a venture that wakes up every day and tries to figure out how to do more economic development in St. Paul.”

“We approached this very seriously. This wasn’t a, ‘gee, I hope we win’ approach. We went after this as we are going to win and we are going to show that this is a positive site for the team. You can’t go in there with a premise that this is a good site for Minneapolis, the Mall of America, or St. Paul. The team has to have a site that works for them and their fans.We brought in some folks that said, what does it look like to bring in 20 or 30 thousand people to a site. Do the logistics work? Does the traffic work? This isn’t detailed planning, this is looked at from a very high level. The site needed to be practical and it needed to work on a financial basis.” Kramer said that in the end, they didn’t just believe it would work, they believed it was the catalyst to redevelop the entire Midway superblock
site and beyond, changing the image of the entire area. He said that was the message his chamber of commerce worked hard to get out over the following weeks and months.

It took me a few weeks of crying in my beer before I could actually say, a soccer stadium in St. Paul is good for the region. But it’s not my job to represent the region. It’s my job is to represent Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Councilman Jacob Frey

MLS made several stops in St. Paul over the summer trying to decide if the Midway site could work for a stadium, the last being on September 21, when Commissioner Garber tried to sneak into the city to meet with Minnesota United, the governor, and mayor of St. Paul. The commissioner stopped just short of giving a full endorsement to the site after it was leaked that he was in town and a hasty press conference was called.

It’s likely that Garber may have been looking for a full commitment from the city and state on not only support of the stadium but of a full redevelopment of the area.
“The soccer stadium alone is not good for the area and a soccer stadium alone wouldn’t come to the Midway area unless there was redevelopment that coincided with it,” said Midway Center owner Birdoff. “Bill wouldn’t want to do that, MLS wasn’t interested in that unless there was more to it than a soccer stadium.”

All things seemed to point in St. Paul’s direction when the option to purchase acreage near the Farmer’s Market was allowed to expire. McGuire never made a statement but it was now clear, the Minneapolis site was off the table. At the MLS press conference in March at Target Field, the Pohlad brothers said they were interested in the land even if McGuire decided not to use it for the stadium. In the end, not even the Pohlad’s
wanted the property to redevelop which may well have been a message to Mayor Hodges.

Aftermath

After the October press conference announcing the agreement between the City of St. Paul, McGuire, and the Met Council, Minneapolis Councilperson Frey reflected on the shift to St. Paul. “St. Paul came ready to play. They lead with big vision and boldness that quite frankly, should be congratulated. They essentially went underground for six weeks to deliver an argument as to why the Midway site was a prime location. They came back with examples and pretty pictures and an economic model that was persuasive. I believe all that work was done with existing city staff and resources. That doesn’t cost any money! If you pitch the big vision, that might actually get your city a better deal than they would have originally received.”

“We could have said (about the Farmers Market site) this is the best location for your stadium and here are 25 reasons why. Here’s your five alternate design plans for how this soccer park could be situated and located – how it could play with the Light Rail and the Farmers Market and how it could make a connection to all areas… and by the way – we think this is such a good site, here are the five things we want in return.”

After a long reflective pause, a frustrated Frey said, “We just never got that far. It took me a few weeks of crying in my beer before I could actually say, a soccer stadium in St. Paul is good for the region. But it’s not my job to represent the region. It’s my job is to represent Minneapolis.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who was an advocate for the stadium at the Farmers Market site, declined to be interviewed for this story. His comments on Twitter have shown he was just as frustrated as Frey but often more outspoken with his criticism of the mayor’s office. McLaughlin’s email reply stated, “I’m not spending time on this right now. It is, in my view, a lost cause, lost by our Mayor.”

“Access, egress and parking are issues everywhere,” McGuire explained. “There was good parking there [Minneapolis], but it was a distance away and they would have had to connect that parking. You could say the same thing at this [St. Paul] site but we are working on that. The light rail wasn’t confirmed yet and that was a big part. The more it’s delayed the bigger that problem becomes.”

“The business community in Minneapolis, a lot of the neighbors and the majority of the city council were excited about the prospects for a stadium there. It’s also fair to say that there were some that didn’t think this was the right thing. People can decide for themselves who that was. There were a lot of positives about Minneapolis, but when you factor all the pieces together, it’s why we ended up where we did. Amidst all the discussions about the Farmers Market site and some of the concerns and things that would need to be overcome there it became apparent that the Snelling Midway site was in fact a viable place to consider and hadn’t been in past. When we met with the mayor he was interested. He was interested three years ago in getting this in the St. Paul municipality. He was very positive to get this done in this particular site. Part of what makes St. Paul a good site is that city has stepped up to be a partner.”

Proposal Accepted

Serendipity. Fortuitous. Lucky. Those are words used by key stakeholders of Minnesota United’s stadium plans for the St. Paul Midway neighborhood site to explain how the stadium ended up in St. Paul. Stakeholders like team owner McGuire, St. Paul Mayor Coleman, and Midway Center landowner Birdoff. Looking deeper into the process that took Minnesota United from a late March announcement with MLS to a plan for a
19,000 seat stadium at the Midway site in St. Paul, may well have been fortuitous with all the right things falling in place at the right time. Perhaps more importantly it was a perfect storm of timing along with strong leadership, good partnerships and years of preparation.

“If you do a project like this, it’s big and it’s complex and it’s a forever kind of thing,” McGuire explains. “It has lots of pieces and impacts and parts that branch off from that. To do that, you have to have a sense of partnership. A joint sense of goals and vision and appreciation of what you are trying to achieve so you can make the commitments to that common goal. In this case I think our meetings with the mayor of St. Paul, his staff as well as lots of other people, have projected that partnership. That’s not to say that you won’t have disagreements or there won’t be tiffs here and there. But in the end, in order to pull this off we have to all be together. Clearly when you get that sense – that’s something that makes this possible.

For his part, Mayor Coleman effuses enthusiasm about the deal and the partnership, saying “Bill’s passion for the world’s game is second to none. He gets excited about what soccer can do and his enthusiasm and willingness to put his private resources towards it.” And he is optimistic about the scope of the project beyond just getting a stadium deal done.

“This isn’t like some other deals where people are looking to make a buck. Bill is doing this because he believes in soccer and believes in the vision of what it can do for the community. It was easy to take his enthusiasm for what he sees soccer being able to do for the community and plug it into our vision for the city.”

Conclusion

While loose threads on the St. Paul site need to be tied up in the spring of 2016, things do seem to be heading in the right direction thanks to the leadership of St. Paul Mayor Coleman and his staff. Lease agreements still need to be finalized between the city and Minnesota United and then the biggest hurdle of all will be getting the tax exemption through the legislature this session.

While support for the stadium tax exemption has generally been talked of favorably by state lawmakers, mainly because there is no dollar ask, things can quickly turn afoul in the legislature, especially in busy years like 2016. However, with the stadium project working as a catalyst to transform not just the bus barn and 34.5 acre superblock but the entire Midway area, it’s likely to pass.

“I think so much about the 20,000 people that will come to the games many of whom are millennials or new immigrants to our community who may not go to – you know I’m a crazy hockey fan – but folks coming here from Central America may not be looking to go to a Wild game, because soccer is their passion,” says Coleman. “It’s exciting from that standpoint.

It’s exciting from taking a piece of land that all my life I’ve driven by and hasn’t really changed much in that 50 plus years of driving past it and to watch it change and transform. There is no question about it. When I came in after I was elected and before I was sworn in as mayor 10 years ago, Ford had announced they would be closing their plant in Highland Park. I really thought that would be the thing that we’d be working on.
All of a sudden I see how the Midway site can happen with construction starting this summer. I never would have believed that it would jump over the Ford Plant site in getting done. There’s a lot of great things that have happened across the City of St. Paul, but I’m going to be very proud when the stadium gets built and the rest of that area is redeveloped.”

Birdoff says he’s gotten to know McGuire over the last several years and calls him “a good man” with a “very good heart.”

“I’ve been doing this development kind of business for 30 years and you don’t come across a Bill McGuire Guire too often. He has the interest of the community [at heart]. Nature and green space is really one of the most important things to him. He’s is a good guy and in my opinion for Minnesota and the people of the Twin Cities he’s a special type of guy.”

At the beginning of 2015, Minneapolis seemed a foregone conclusion as the future home of Minnesota United. Pairing a redeveloped Farmers Market on the light rail with a stadium drawing heavily upon millennials was a guaranteed success. Even Mayor Coleman’s “they’re just not that into us” comment reflected not only the team’s natural prejudices toward Minneapolis, but also Saint Paul’s remarkably Minnesotan, shouldershrugging humility.

But it only takes a quick glance to any other major city to get a sense of how truly remarkable McGuire’s pursuit of a stadium really was. David Beckham continues to struggle to find a home for his future MLS franchise; New England Revolution continue to play in a cavernous NFL stadium half a state away from Boston; and teams like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas are married to stadiums in exurbs that present significant challenges to their growth.

Though Dr. McGuire began his search for a stadium site years ago, he entered 2015 with no concrete plans. That the plan shifted so dramatically from Minneapolis to Saint Paul is significant. But the enthusiasm from Saint Paul, the mayor, and everyone else involved presents us with perhaps an unrealistically sweetheart deal for everyone involved. It is the stuff of nineteenth-century romantic novels.