At the beginning of 2015, Minneapolis looked a lock for Major League Soccer. Whether it would be in the ZygiDome or a Minnesota United stadium on the Farmer’s Market site, it was not going to St. Paul. Almost a year after MLS announced Minnesota United FC as a new franchise, Dr. Bill McGuire will be unveiling renderings for a stadium in St. Paul.
In March, Byline Press is publishing The Complete Darkness 2015, the second annual review of Minnesota United FC’s season. It’s a 200+ page book that includes match recaps and player stats. In this year’s edition, we have long profiles of Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez as well as the analysis of statistics made exclusively available to us. In previous excerpts, we gave a general overview of the team statisticallyand a look at the midfield’s statistics. The following is a short excerpt of Brian Quarstad’s feature looking at the ins and outs of the deals that led to Minnesota United building a stadium in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul.
In mid-February of 2015, Major League Soccer provided Dr. Bill McGuire with a letter, endorsing his plan to join the league, contingent upon a stadium deal. A month later, the deal was announced at the Twins’ stadium, Target Field, with plans to build a soccer stadium a stone’s throw away on the Farmer’s Market site. Response from City Hall, however, was frigid at best and Mayor Betsy Hodges was a surprising no-show for the MLS unveiling.
Just a few weeks later, Mayor Coleman, an Irish Catholic, attended a Seder dinner for Passover. Also in attendance was Minnesota United team president Nick Rogers. Coleman now calls the meeting fortuitous. “After the dinner we were sitting around talking and I said, look Nick, we are still interested in soccer in St. Paul,” says Coleman. “If it doesn’t work in Minneapolis let us know and we’d be happy to talk to you about it. He said they were still making progress and things were moving along. I said that’s fine, I’m not trying to steal it from Minneapolis, but if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, we are interested in talking to you about the Midway site.”
By the middle of April, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges surprised many people with a public letter taking a very defensive stance against the concept of Minnesota United building yet another stadium in her city and asking for tax relief. It was apparent that Hodges wasn’t happy the city was on the hook for $150 million of the Vikings new stadium costs and her city was now committed to pay for repairs and remodeling of Target Center. Both were deals that were negotiated before she took office. Hodges seemed fine with MNUFC paying for the stadium and building it in Minneapolis but she expected no tax relief or help with infrastructure improvements for the area.
In the letter she wrote, “There is no need for a subsidy for this facility, or this ownership group, whatsoever. The subsidy they are requesting will have a direct and negative impact on the taxpayers of Minneapolis. First, the McGuire group is asking to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes—not just for a limited term of time, but forever.”
Jacob Frey is a bright and energetic 33-year-old Minneapolis councilperson representing the 3rd Ward, which is adjacent to the Farmers Market site. Frey was the self-appointed point-person in discussions with McGuire and Rogers. Frey explains that they never got to a stage of true negotiations with Minnesota United but in those talks had gotten the team to agree on concessions including how property tax relief “would not continue in perpetuity.”
“I got to the point where I was trying to see how far Minnesota United would go,” says Frey. “Legally nor ethically I can’t commit the city to anything myself. We have 12 other council members besides me and a mayor and obviously there was disagreement. I thought at the very least it was important to see what their best and final offer was. I don’t think we ever got to that point, but certainly they were able to sweeten the deal beyond the initial basic boilerplate. Initially, they said they wanted a full property tax break and they wanted a sales tax break for their construction fees. Subsequently, they said they were willing to do a property tax freeze.
“In other words, they would continuously pay the $300 thousand that we currently get in taxes and going forward the tax breaks would not be in perpetuity. They were willing to make an effort to have a LEED Certified building, to have both minority and community/zip code hiring. They were willing to have their players coach our youth of color in the city. They were willing to have the area where the stadium would have sat to be written into the downtown food and liquor tax district. And that was just the beginning – after just a few conversations. I’m not sure how much further they were willing to go, but clearly there was a strong desire to be in that location.”
While never calling out his mayor, he does paint a picture of her office turning their back on the investment while he saw value in it. He also doesn’t feel her blanket assessment of the deal was accurate.
“I felt an increased urgency to not squander a gigantic private investment in an area that is presently the gully of our city – an area that could use a facelift – an area that could have provided an excellent connection from North Minneapolis to our booming downtown. It was an investment that doesn’t come around every day. When any entity is willing to make a $300 million investment in cultural infrastructure improvements that will allow for a professional soccer team to draw huge millennial and multicultural crowds that we were anticipating, my take is, you don’t say yes, but you don’t say no either. The reason I stepped in is because I thought that we had to engage in a positive way. I thought it was critical to note that the investment was appreciated,” says Frey.
By the time Hodges wrote her public letter, things were already souring between her office and Minnesota United.
Emails disclosed later through the Data Practices Act and requested by MinnPost show that very same day of Hodges’ letter, Jonathan Sage-Martinson of St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development sent St. Paul Mayor Coleman an email asking him if he was still interested in an MLS stadium in the city. Coleman responded, “The message I have [sic] them was ‘hell yeah. They don’t seem interested in us— just not that into us. Thought we could integrate them into new Midway/bus barn site.” Those emails disclose that by May 15th St. Paul had already put together a seven-page PowerPoint presentation on the University and Snelling area that contained details about the bus barn site and the adjacent RK Midway shopping center, parking, and roads.
On May 18th, McGuire officially met with Coleman where the Mayor’s office laid out their plan that was put together in just a few short weeks.
“Having seen what CHS (Field) was doing – to take what was already happening in Lowertown and then plopping that beautiful minor league ballpark into Lowertown and really integrating it with the neighborhood, helped us understand what could happen with a facility in the Midway district to be catalytic and really work in that area,” explained an enthused Coleman.
Four Months Later
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’re 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 on this particular site. Part of what makes St. Paul a good site is that city has stepped up to be a partner.”