When it comes to the tricky tale of the attempts that Minneapolis and St. Paul have made to land a Major League Soccer team, plenty of soccer metaphors present themselves. The shot, the save, the called foul, the pass and/or assist; take your pick. But the more accurate example might be the “dead-ball” circumstance of a free kick, with a player — or, in this case, an entire league — standing over the ball and gesturing for teammates to move around, get open and signal like they might want the ball sent their way.
These days, it’s St. Paul that’s holding its hand up, calling for the ball to be aimed at it, and Minneapolis can’t produce much more than a wary glance at the sidelines.
The idea of state support for a professional soccer stadium broke late in the 2015 session, with almost all the attention already consumed by budget fights. But even then, Minneapolis, then the target of the MLS attention, was not a full-hearted lobbying partner, and legislators were hesitant to dip into yet another downtown stadium project for a city that already had three.
St. Paul and Ramsey County have each made the most of that lull, as each passed nonbinding resolutions supporting a stadium site in the Midway area, along the Green Line light rail route on University Avenue. The MLS has expressed interest in the site but hasn’t committed to a deal yet. If a deal is reached, the only hurdle remaining is a slight adjustment in the state tax code to ensure a property tax break and a sales tax exemption for construction materials.
There’s just one problem: An omnibus tax bill already exists and is still being held over in a conference committee, meaning any legislative nod to the stadium project would likely have to catch up to the current legislation.
Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, chair of the House Tax Committee, said the proposal would need to start in his committee before advancing to a House floor vote. But, in general, he said he was more than willing to consider the prospect. With ownership committing to some $120 million in development costs, Davids said the suggestion of granting an estimated $3 to $4 million in tax breaks is a fair approach, especially compared to much larger state and local investments on construction for the Minnesota Vikings, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Twins, all in recent years.
“What I’ve seen of proposals up to this point, itwould’ve been nice to do all of [the stadiums] with this very limited state involvement,” Davids said. “Don’t we wish we could’ve done that with the other ones? I sure do.”
Davids would still want to get a closer look at the details on a deal, which aren’t yet available, but his outlook was more optimistic than DFL leaders on tax policy in the Senate. Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, would go no further than to say that he expects a legislator from that district would bring the bill to the Senate Taxes Committee before it could be wrapped into the full tax bill.
Skoe added: “There is a fair amount of stadium fatigue in the Legislature. None of these facilities really impact Clearbrook, and the district I represent, other than some fans, maybe.”
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, chair of the Senate Tax Reform Committee, commented that the Minnesota United franchise is lacking the brand recognition of the Twins, Vikings or Timberwolves, and would “need to be aggressive” in making their case to lawmakers who might not be soccer fans. A sales tax cut for building costs is a “fairly common request” for major projects, Rest said, though she would want lawmakers to have a chance at their due diligence before agreeing to a relief scheme.
On the specifics of how a tax-break bill might come into being, Rest said stadium boosters should be mindful of the fact that nearly everyone had wanted a tax-cut bill for the 2015 session, but the legislation still stalled in the joint conference.
“We could absolutely end up in 2016 without a tax bill again,” Rest said. “We went to conference this year, and didn’t get one, and I don’t think it was because of lack of willingness. We had … bipartisan conferees on both sides. But the trading partner, which [in 2015] which was transportation funding, did not get involved.”
Rest figures a tax bill could move in 2016 even if a transportation package failed yet again, though she hopes the two would be tied together to ensure their success. There is a residual “pent-up demand” for tax relief, Rest said, both to individuals, and as part of tax increment financing packages for many local governments.
“Certainly, in hindsight, you wouldn’t want [a stadium bill] to have come in 2015, because nothing happened,” Rest said, laughing. “You have to bank on the future. But I will say, I don’t have any predictions.”
No formal conversations have taken place on taxes since the regular 2015 session ended, but Rest expects that a number of new tax relief ideas, including the St. Paul stadium bill, will appear almost immediately in House and Senate committees, in the hopes of reaching the now-dormant conference committee.
When it does arrive, one of the stadium’s loudest cries of support will come from the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which is “thinking extraordinarily positive thoughts” about the stadium idea, according to its president, Matt Kramer. Kramer argues that the math is all on the side of the stadium being built. The city has owned that lot for about five decades, so a forgiveness of property taxes would not change current revenue streams.
“It’s currently a vacant lot,” Kramer said. “Not to dramatize it, but it seems to be a combination of broken-down buses and broken bottles.”
Minneapolis has received consistent state and local help to get its event centers built or refurbished, while St. Paul’s only major assistance in recent years came with the CHS Field for the St. Paul Saints; state funding for the Xcel Energy Center was approved more than 17 years ago. But Kramer said his organization will not focus on equity between the Twin Cities to push for a St. Paul soccer site; he has been surprised how often he has needed to remind people that the term “Midway” is meant to signify a neighborhood that’s equidistant from the downtowns of both cities.
“It is within the city of St. Paul, but it’s not a downtown stadium, like Target Field, or U.S. Bank Stadium, or the Xcel Center,” Kramer said. “This one is different, and the Twin Cities as a whole should take ownership of that fact.”