tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Emotions run high in debate over sports facilities

Nothing stirs emotions like a good football or basketball game. A down-to-the-wire finish in any sport get spectators off their seats, gets them cheering, and sends them home euphoric or despondent, depending on the outcome. So it’s probably no surprise that the debate over the need for a new stadium in the Twin Cities is so emotionally charged. Without new facilities, the teams will leave, damaging the economic vitality of our state; on the other hand, no one wants to devote millions of dollars in taxes to a stadium that will benefit millionaire players and billionaire team owners.

In the 1970s, I was in high school and I watched my share of Twins baseball games at Bloomington’s Metropolitan stadium, built in 1956. It was a good park for baseball. I have fond memories of my dad taking me to games on “knothole” days when the price of admission was only 50 cents. The stadium always seemed good enough to me back then, and it was a little bit sad to watch them tear it down in the early 1980s after building the new Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.

A similar facilities drama was unfolding at my high school at that time. Holy Angels High School in Richfield had only a very small gymnasium when I was a student there. It was too small to accommodate a varsity basketball game so our team played all its home games at a nearby grade school, which had a bigger gym. Throughout my four years there, we were asked to raise money for a new gym – a quality on-campus facility that would be big enough to accommodate a regulation basketball court and bleachers for several hundred fans. We did all kinds of things to raise money. For a while, I remember going door to door in my neighborhood selling electrostatic magnetic carpet sweepers. They cots $20 each and I think I sold two of them. It was $40 on the way toward the school’s goal of $550,000. The money got raised and the new gym was built. It opened the year after I graduated.

Now, 20-some years later, they have torn down that gym and built a bigger indoor athletic facility – a gym that is apparently as good or better than any in the area. That gym built with the money we raised, wasn’t big enough or good enough or something. It kind of rubs a person the wrong way to think that the thing we all worked so hard to build 25 years ago is no longer good enough. It seems like a gym ought to last more than a couple of decades.

I have those same feelings about the Metrodome. This was the stadium that was going to solve all our problems. With a covered facility, games would always be played as scheduled and no one traveling a long distance to see a game would have to go home because of rain. It would also be a lot more comfortable for fans to watch, particularly in late fall when the Gophers and Vikings were playing.

Now there’s a lot of talk about building a new stadium. Somehow the Metrodome, built in 1980, just isn’t good enough. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me that I was covering Gopher football games at the Metrodome for my college newspaper; now some people want to retire the Metrodome. Just as the whole high school gymnasium thing rubs me the wrong way, this flap over a stadium rubs me the wrong way too. What’s worse is that the talk is not about the need for another stadium but the need for three more stadiums. Apparently the Twins, Vikings and Gophers just can’t get along sharing a single facility; each team feels it needs its own stadium.

About a month ago, I had a chance to listen to Roy Terwilliger explain the stadium debate. Roy, whom I have known for many years, is a banker from Eden Prairie. My company has even done some work for him. He served in the state senate for 11 years and ran unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. senator. He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and he has a reputation as a common-sense consensus builder who gets things done. About a year and a half ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Terwilliger chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the seven-person body charged with managing the Metrodome.

“Our first and foremost job is to retain professional football and baseball,” Terwilliger told a business group on November 4. Terwilliger noted that the Twins do not have a long-term contract to play in the Metrodome; their agreement runs year to year. The Vikings, on the other hand, have signed a contract obligating them to play there until 2011. Terwilliger said it takes about five years to move a team, so he feels it is necessary to reach agreement on a contract extension before 2006. The only way to get the extension, he says, is to offer the team a new place to play.

The Vikings frequently point out that other teams in the midwest – the Lions, Packers and Bears – are playing in facilities that have been upgraded in recent years. All are seeing their revenues rise, while the Vikings complain their revenues are flat.

Terwilliger said the metro area gets a stadium for all kinds of uses because of the Twins and Vikings. He explained that the Metrodome has 300 dates a year available for events. Eighty-one are used for baseball, 10 are used for Vikings football and six are used for Gopher football. “That leaves 203 days that we are able to do things because the Vikings and the Twins pay the freight,” Terwilliger said. “No tax dollars are being used to run the stadium. Those teams make it possible to have that facility for our use.” Over the years, the Metrodome has hosted big-time concerts, rallies, truck-pulls and other events, not to mention a Super Bowl, All Star game and two World Series.

Terwilliger obviously wants the state legislature to authorize the construction of new stadium facilities. “We don’t know what the legislature will do,” Terwilliger summarized. Keep in mind that the biggest issue the legislature will face when it convenes in January is how to balance a budget that is expected to be $700 million in the red.

“We know it is pretty tough to put athletes ahead of kids and senior citizens,” said Terwilliger, who wanted to make one point clear. “No one is advocating using general fund money for a stadium. We are looking at special assessments to finance a stadium.

“The fact is, we don’t want to lose the Vikings or the Twins, and we want the Minnesota Gophers to have a good on-campus program,” said Terwilliger. The Gophers, he said, have $200 million already committed to build a new stadium on campus. Because of that head start, he said a Gopher facility is likely to be the first new stadium built.

Next year will be a better year to work on stadium issues in the legislature than 2006 for two reasons. First, it is not an election year; this timing gives lawmakers additional freedom to make difficult decisions. Second, there’s still plenty of time to work things out before the Vikings’ contract comes into play. Terwilliger believes lawmakers can reach agreement on an approach to new facilities, citing Denver and Detroit as examples of similar metro areas that have separate baseball and football stadiums. “I can’t believe we can’t get this done,” he said.

Losing either of the pro sports teams would be bad, according to Terwilliger. He said the impact of pro sports is significant in Minnesota. Each of the teams, he said, generates millions of dollars in revenue to the state and in economic activity. He said pro athletes pay between $10 million and $12 million in income taxes in Minnesota. “When other teams play here, those visiting players pay income taxes here for the work they do while in the state,” Terwilliger said.

And fans spend millions of dollars because of the teams. “Money spent is not just entertainment dollars that would be spent elsewhere if the teams didn’t exist,” Terwilliger said. “I don’t believe that money would be spent.”

Emotionally, these are difficult issues. Just like it rubs me the wrong way to tear down a high school gym that’s not even 25 years old, it’s a little difficult to get excited about financing new stadiums when the one we’ve got seems adequate to me. But just like I am willing to put my emotions on the shelf so today’s students at my old high school can have athletic facilities as good as those at many other high schools, I am probably willing to put my emotions on the shelf to support efforts to retain pro sports -- an important economic catalyst -- in our Twin Cities.

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