The campaign to bring a professional soccer stadium to St. Paul intensified this week with a site visit and chatter over further development opportunities, but without a clear plan, some in the community and City Hall question the upside.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is among the most vocal advocates for bringing a Major League Soccer team, and stadium, to the Twin Cities. After a deadline for Minneapolis to pitch a facility plan lapsed without action last month, Coleman pushed for action across the river.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the mayor again trumpeted the stadium as a redevelopment driver in an investment-starved area. He has touted his site of choice – a former Metro Transit bus maintenance facility by Snelling and University avenues, near Interstate 94 – as the best option for a soccer franchise.
Mark Abbott, the soccer league’s deputy commissioner, toured the site Tuesday, the same night about 80 people gathered in an adjacent event space to voice support and criticism for the project. A lack of hard facts about the proposal loomed large.
“Everybody says this is a plot of land ripe for redevelopment, but it gets a little complicated,” said Eric Mohlo, who leads a Union Park District Council task force formed to address redevelopment at the 10-acre “bus barn” site as well as 25 adjacent acres that house surface parking and a shopping center.
The owners of Minnesota United FC, the team that would use the facility, haven’t settled on whether to build in St. Paul – and neither has the league. Former UnitedHealth Group CEO Bill McGuire, the owner group’s tight-lipped leader, hasn’t severed ties with Minneapolis.
He joined Coleman and Abbott on Tuesday’s visit to the site, one he considered for a soccer facility as far back as 2013. Still, McGuire hasn’t officially sketched out an offer for St. Paul, making it tough for officials and others to weigh the city’s potential financial obligations and infrastructure upgrades related to the project.
Coleman told reporters Wednesday he believes the stadium can rise over the next three to five years in tandem with other redevelopment, potentially including a new corporate headquarters, mixed housing and retail. The city has already heard from unnamed businesses considering a home at the site.
“That interest has accelerated with the discussions relative to an MLS facility,” he said. The mayor also noted that a stadium could jump-start enough activity to shrink the redevelopment window from 15 to 20 years to about a half-decade.
Under a preliminary framework floated in Minneapolis, McGuire’s owner group would pick up the $120 million tab for building the stadium. In exchange, McGuire called for a break on property taxes and sales tax on construction materials – requests that derailed the city’s stadium talks.
It’s likely the owners would make similar requests in St. Paul, and Coleman confirmed he would support the plan and believes legislators would give their required go-ahead. Tax abatement is a fair trade, he said, for the development that would follow an 18,000-seat stadium.
Still, without a framework for the facility and a sense of exactly what add-on amenities it would draw, it’s tough for Coleman to nail down ironclad support. There’s widespread interest in the community and on the St. Paul City Council, but questions linger as the league presses for fast-tracked decisions.
There’s no hard deadline, but Abbott said Tuesday league officials will vet options as quickly as possible. Without a plan in the Twin Cities, the league could expand elsewhere. Coleman said he expects talks to continue over the next week.
St. Paul City Council Member Russ Stark lives a few blocks from the bus barn site and his ward butts up against it. He said Wednesday his support hinges on guarantees that stadium-adjacent development would enrich the surrounding area.
But a comprehensive outlay of what would come with the stadium takes time to come together.
“If the stadium at some point becomes a way of helping catalyze development on the remainder of the site, I think it becomes a potentially appealing proposition depending on what the details are,” Stark said. “If not, then it’s less interesting to me. My primary interest is in seeing high-quality development on the site overall.”
The bus barn and the properties that border it, owned by New York-based RK Midway, would need significant public infrastructure upgrades, including new streets. Public space is also a priority for the site, according to the city, and community members raised traffic and parking concerns several times during Tuesday’s community meeting. The site is a short walk from the Snelling Avenue station on the Green Line light rail project.
Tax increment financing and other development incentives could come into play, Stark said, but required city approvals mean a lengthy process.
“Anything that would force a really quick timeline would be problematic,” he said. “Hopefully, at the very least, this conversation about the stadium is a catalyst for furthering a redevelopment of the site whether the stadium happens there or not.”