In 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.
Part I: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a wealthy man in possession of a soccer team must be in want of a stadium. In the three years since Dr. Bill McGuire bought Minnesota’s professional soccer team, he has been on the desperate hunt for a permanent home. When 2015 began there was a real possibility of Major League Soccer being played by a Ziggy Wilf-owned team in the Vikings’ US Bank Stadium. By the end of the year, almost every large plot of land in the greater metro area had been mooted before the team eventually settled with the Midway “bus barn” site in Saint Paul.
This is the story of a city and a mayor overwhelmed with stadium projects. This is the story of another city and mayor, often-overlooked, that swept in and closed the deal. This is the story of a team and owner looking for a home. This is the story of how the deals got done and how soccer came to find a home in a dusty plot of land by the side of the highway.
The story starts like this: A rich guy walks into a bar…
It was late October of 2012 and the Minnesota Stars, a league-owned soccer team who had been looking for a new owner for three years, was about to become a memory and statistics on a Wikipedia page. They had just lost the 2012 NASL Championship and their fans and team were gathered at Brit’s Pub, a soccer bar and eating establishment in Downtown Minneapolis, to celebrate the year and to possibly say goodbye, forever, to their team. Fans mingled with front office, coaching staff, and players. Dr. Bill McGuire, former CEO of UnitedHealth Group, and then son-in-law Nick Rogers, casually slipped into the crowd. Most had no idea who they were, but there were rumors of McGuire’s interest in purchasing the team. As the supporters re-lived the highs and lows of the season, the duo strolled casually through the diehard crowd and struck up conversations. Soon they were asking questions “What would you think of changing the name of the team? If a stadium was to be built, where would be a good location?” That was the beginning.
2015 was a year of historical significance for Minnesota United Football Club and its supporters. It started in late March with a Major League Soccer press conference attended by commissioner Don Garber. Minnesota United FC was announced as the league’s 23rd franchise. It was an exciting event that some within MLS called the most impressive franchise announcement in league history.
There was more exciting news. McGuire announced plans to build a soccer temple for the team’s supporters to come and worship on game days – a stadium on the edge of downtown Minneapolis near the Farmers Market. It was a “pinch me” moment for diehard football fans who had followed different incarnations of professional soccer in Minnesota for 24 years. Now the highest level of soccer in the U.S. was coming to the Twin Cities and it would be owned by someone who genuinely seemed to care about the team, the sport, and even their communities. Despite the hype and excitement of the festivities, something seemed amiss. As the Dark Clouds and True North Elite sang Minnesota Black and Blue, there was one important no-show: Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. It was odd. A new major league franchise was being announced to play in the city of Minneapolis and the mayor was nowhere to be found. It was a telling moment and a precursor for things to come.
Seven months later, the scene could not have been more different. On October 23, Minnesota United, together with Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, stood in a small room at the back of a strip mall to announce a deal between the City of Saint Paul and the team to build a 20,000 seat soccer specific stadium. In those 212 days there were ups and down, twists and turns, and in the end a perfect storm of a location ripe for development, a city unspoiled by stadia and pro sports that was ready for its day in the limelight. It was also a city whose mayor seized the moment and whose talented staff had been groomed for that moment. It was also helped by outside support from the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Port Authority, who all worked in concert.
There were lots of plots of land around the city that were identified but sometimes they weren’t big enough or there wasn’t a way to park or move traffic. Sometimes they weren’t close enough to anything else as a destination spot and often times they didn’t have public transportation options.
Long time Minnesota soccer supporter Joe Leyba believes he planted the seed for a stadium at the St. Paul Midway bus barn site. Leyba recalls meeting McGuire and Rogers that night at Brit’s Pub. The conversation revolved around Parade Stadium in Minneapolis, where McGuire was considering having the team play a few matches. Leyba told him of a great location for the stadium in the Midway neighborhood in St. Paul at University and I-94. “You’ve got the Green Line Light Rail Transit, the freeway, and there’s nothing but a big vacant lot,” said Leyba.
That vacant lot would later be revealed to Leyba and McGuire as the “bus barn” site, a facility owned by Metro Transit and overseen by the Metropolitan Council. The building on the site had been torn down 20 years prior and the plot had been sitting empty ever since that time. An eye sore to the community, it was used to stage both nearby construction projects and to park damaged Metro Transit buses and shelters. In its heyday, hundreds of buses from across the Twin Cities were serviced there weekly. Now it was a 10 acre blighted embarrassment to the surrounding community.
“You know when you first meet Bill [McGuire] he doesn’t really make a lot of eye contact with you. So I’m thinking, he might have taken it in and made a mental note of it. Then again he might have been thinking, I’m sitting here talking to you and I might just be making the biggest mistake of my life buying this team,” laughs Leyba. “I really had no idea.”
McGuire doesn’t remember the conversation but acknowledges it may well have been the beginning of a long journey that led the team to St. Paul. When McGuire and Rogers came to that event in the fall of 2012, they revealed they’d already had discussions with businesses, municipalities, and the Minneapolis Park Board about properties around the Twin Cities. They had looked at Parade Stadium, the old Scherer Brothers lumberyard site on the Mississippi in Northeast Minneapolis, amongst many other sites. Rogers mentioned a location he liked on Lake Street near I-35W.
McGuire says they were looking for several things in potential stadium sites. “There were obviously places others were interested in promoting but they wouldn’t necessarily overlap with the kind of ease of access and multicultural demographic that we had in mind. We looked throughout the [metro] counties, not just Hennepin. We talked to people at the [Minneapolis] Park Board, not just about obvious places like Parade Stadium, but other tracts of land that might be around that they’d be willing to work with us on. We just didn’t find anything. There were lots of plots of land around the city that were identified but sometimes they weren’t big enough or there wasn’t a way to park or move traffic. Sometimes they weren’t close enough to anything else as a destination spot and often times they didn’t have public transportation options,” says McGuire.
Conversations took place with the City of Bloomington for a site near the Mall of America, which he recalls as being very positive but discussions “didn’t get very advanced.” He insists the site had merit but there were potential challenges with MSP Airport in close proximity and ordinances restricting a stadium in the flight paths of runways.
I was there with my land use lawyer and afterwards he said, do you know who that guy is? I said I have no idea. He said that’s Bill McGuire and I said I still have no idea.
Rick Biroff – Midway Center owner.
He also explored locations in St. Paul, where they thought about the Ford Plant site, an area around the Sears building near the State Capitol, and a plot of land right near Xcel Center that the City of St. Paul and its mayor Chris Coleman had promoted. “In all those cases, including some areas that municipalities brought forward for us to look at, we found very few that actually brought all the elements together, reasonably centrally located to the metro area, good access to those coming in from outstate, public transportation and not being a destination unto itself, but instead being part of multifaceted things going on around it,” explains McGuire.
McGuire dug into the Midway site shortly after purchasing the team in 2013. He attended a meeting which Midway Center landowner Rick Birdoff hosted. He was interested in redevelopment of his 24.5 acre suburban-like strip mall and another 4.5 undeveloped acres behind it. The Met Council was also willing to part with their 10 acre bus barn property on the cheap if developed in a way that would promote transit-oriented development. Not only was the Green Line LRT under construction for University Avenue, there were also plans for a bus rapid transit system intersecting it on Snelling Avenue. The meeting consisted of Twin Cities businessman, real estate brokers, lawyers, and planners. Birdoff, who lives in New York, remembers his first meeting with McGuire.
“We’d been there a couple of hours and then at the end of the meeting there was a question and answer session. “Bill [McGuire] stood up and asked some questions,” explained Birdoff. He was talking about soccer and the possibility of having a soccer stadium on the site. I was there with my land use lawyer and afterwards he said, do you know who that guy is? I said I have no idea. He said that’s Bill McGuire and I said I still have no idea,” says Birdoff.
After that the occasional phone call was made between McGuire and Birdoff. “It was cordial but I really didn’t take it that seriously,” said Birdoff. “It was very remote in my mind that a soccer stadium would be part of this process to redevelopment.”
Even though the City of Saint Paul shared the Met Council’s desire for a transit-oriented development at Birdoff’s shopping center, the immediacy was not there for the developer. His shopping center was full of tenants and he was making a profit. He says his property needed a jump start not only for the project itself and the redevelopment of the superblock, but the whole area needed a perception change before he could get buy-in by the business community to invest in redevelopment.