Legislature shows true colors in stadium-mania

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The state legislature’s orgy of spending on sports stadiums seems to have stopped just short of giving billionaire Vikings owner Zygi Wilf his requested football palace in Blaine, but that was the only restraint demonstrated last week by Republicans and Democrats alike in this year’s version of stadium-mania.

Our fiscally responsible lawmakers in St. Paul somehow managed to talk themselves into spending $136 million to build an on-campus stadium for the University of Minnesota’s long-suffering football Gophers. And, for an encore, they approved a dedicated sales tax in Hennepin County that will raise some $300 million to build a new baseball stadium for billionaire businessman Carl Pohlad in downtown Minneapolis. These two outrageous decisions point not only to the charade currently being played by so-called “conservative” Republicans at the Capitol, but they mark a low point in our culture’s slavish and delusional attachment to sports entertainment.

At no time during the legislative debate over the Gophers stadium have University of Minnesota officials explained how a new on-campus football stadium would benefit anybody but coach Glen Mason and his attempts to recruit aspiring professional football players to his team. The added revenue from parking, concessions, and luxury boxes will accrue to the football program, which will help to keep the school’s sports budget solvent. This is all well and good—if, in the greater scheme of things, the solvency of the university’s athletic department had any affect on 99.9 percent of state taxpayers, which it doesn’t.

If a new on-campus stadium would generate any economic benefit to surrounding businesses, those businesses have been uncharacteristically silent in their support for the project. Indeed, by including $1.5 million in mitigation funding, the bill passed last week explicitly acknowledges that the new stadium will have a deleterious impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

All we have heard from stadium supporters is how important it is for people to be able to watch college football outside (like they do in Madison and Iowa City, two Major League cities I’ve always wanted Minneapolis to emulate), how more students will get involved (if they can afford tickets after the most recent tuition hike), and how it will hearken back to the golden era of Gophers football.

Why any of this is important enough to merit even a cursory debate at the Capitol challenges our sense of civic sanity. Just last week, state transportation officials announced that the proposed upgrade of the Crosstown interchange was threatened because contractors were balking at the state’s request that they pony up their own money to do the work because MnDOT didn’t have enough cash to fund it. How many people are affected every day by the bottleneck on the Crosstown? How many people even know where the Gophers play their football games? To spend even five minutes talking about the merits of building a new stadium for a college football team is a ludicrous waste of time. To actually agree to build one is nothing short of lunacy.

But that’s the point we’ve reached now in our sports-saturated culture: Lawmakers believe that spending hundreds of millions on venues to watch sports is more important than fixing our roads, stabilizing a dysfunctional health care system, building supportive housing for the homeless, or investing in education. That’s what the legislature is saying to taxpayers this week. And yet very few voters will respond to this outrageous decision at the polls this fall because they’ve lost any perspective they once may have had on the importance of sports to our quality of life.

The decision to allow Hennepin County to illegally levy a sales tax to build a new ballpark for Carl Pohlad’s baseball team doesn’t cost the state any money, but it likewise elevates the importance of sports entertainment above more vital community needs. Just last year, for instance, the Minneapolis City Council was floating the idea of asking the legislature to approve a sales tax dedicated to improving public safety in the city. To do so would have required state approval, but it was a nonstarter from the beginning; few of the city’s legislative delegation supported it.

Again, what is more important to people in the city: sitting outside to watch a baseball game in a gleaming new stadium or having enough cops on the street to protect our citizens? In the real world, this decision is a no-brainer. In the world of Sid Hartman, KFAN, and Mayor R.T. Rybak, the stadium is just plain cooler.

The facts, as usual, get overlooked in the delusional rush to create this “community” amenity designed to maintain the Twin Cities as a “Major League” city, but here they are:

* The Minnesota Twins are a privately owned corporation, run by a man, Carl Pohlad, who is worth more than $1.2 billion. He is entirely capable of building a new facility himself.

* The new ballpark will add some $40 million a year to the company’s bottom line; Hennepin County taxpayers will be directly responsible for improving the economic well-being of Pohlad’s company.

* There is nothing in the deal that requires Pohlad to invest that $40 million to improve his baseball team.

* If Pohlad sells the team to another individual, Hennepin County will receive some compensation. But there is nothing in the deal that prevents a new owner from moving the team to another city.

But these realities have been overpowered by bizarre concerns about “losing” the Twins to some other city and by emotional appeals to the pastoral splendor of outdoor baseball. How could legislators allow the Twins to leave town, the argument goes, when so many people support outdoor baseball?

The real question, of course, is this: How can Carl Pohlad continue to deprive Twins fans of the beauty of outdoor baseball? How can the owner of the Twins continue to ignore the obvious economic disadvantage of playing in the Metrodome? How can he continue to put the franchise in jeopardy by refusing to upgrade his facility?

In other words, it’s not Minnesota taxpayers and their elected representatives who are responsible for “saving” major league baseball–it’s up to the billionaire owner of the team to make it viable. It’s his company.
Legislators, unfortunately, have chosen to dwell in fantasy instead of reality this session. We hope voters will recall their skewed priorities this November.

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