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Twins ballpark plan clears first hurdle

Twins ballpark plan clears first hurdle

MINNEAPOLIS -- In a meeting that was as long as it was contentious, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners gave the Twins' new ballpark proposal an important victory on Tuesday.

After six hours of deliberation -- which included three hours of public testimony -- the board voted 4-3 to ask the state legislature for the authority to levy a .15 percent sales tax in Hennepin County for the purposes of building a new home for the Twins.

"We're absolutely delighted," said Jerry Bell, President of Twins Sports, Inc. "We heard a lot of opposition; we heard a lot of support. I thought the testimony was balanced and well thought out. This is a huge step forward for the Minnesota Twins, and we're very pleased."

Commissioners Mike Opat, Mark Stenglein, Peter McLaughlin and Board Chair Randy Johnson cast votes in favor of the proposal. Though many stadium opponents testified that building a new ballpark is not the county's business, Stenglein justified his vote by pointing to the Mendota Bridge, Highways 62 and 169 and the LRT as other once unpopular projects spearheaded by Hennepin County.

"Throughout the years, this county has a history of doing things that counties aren't 'supposed' to do," Stenglein said.

Commissioners Penny Steele, Linda Koblick and Gail Dorfman opposed the resolution, with Koblick proposing unsuccessfully to table the issue and hold three public meetings regarding the proposal before the next board meeting on May 24. That's a day after the State Legislature is scheduled to adjourn, so Koblick had to settle for the approval of three public meetings to be held after the Legislature grants the county the taxing authority it seeks -- if it does -- but before the County makes its final vote to approve the tax.

"It's incumbent upon us to take our time and be as thoughtful as possible," said Koblick, who frequently pointed out that the commissioners had just eight days to review the proposal.

The next step is for the state legislature to deliberate and vote on the resolution. While the ballpark has gained the support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Speaker of the House Steve Swiggum, and Senate majority leader Dean Johnson, all parties have said the issue wouldn't be debated on the House or Senate floor before they wrap up the other meat-and-potatoes issues -- education, transportation, health care, and the like.

But Bell indicated that House and Senate committees might begin examining the proposal long before the other big issues are resolved.

"Just because the full body is working on other issues, that doesn't necessarily apply to the committees," Bell said. "They could get it done and have it resting on the House floor."

While Tuesday's events were an important victory for the ballpark proposal, it's still far from a done deal. The Legislature could authorize the county to levy the tax, but that's no guarantee, and the state could make enough changes to the language and terms of the proposal that by the time the issue is back in the county's hands, it might not vote to give its final approval.

Clearly, public opinion is divided on the proposal, with most opponents calling for a referendum that the Twins consider a deal-breaker because of the delay and added expense it would entail.

At 2:45 p.m. CT, about an hour into their meeting, the commissioners opened the floor to public testimony, beginning with Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who supported the plan without a countywide referendum. "Those of us who are elected officials stand for referendum. I stand for one now, and I will be judged on my position on this issue," Rybak said.

Former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek (who drew big laughs when he introduced himself as a Carrier air conditioner salesman) spoke as somebody who, "as a fan, then a player, and now a fan again," grew up with the Twins and wants to preserve them as a community asset. As he spoke, Twins President Dave St. Peter emptied onto a table a mailbag filled with some 7,000 messages from Twins fans thanking the board for taking the initiative to get a new ballpark built.

Among the 50 speakers were the leaders of a number of local business organizations who supported the initiative for the commerce a new ballpark could spark in the Warehouse District; union leaders who spoke of the number of new jobs the project would create; and average fans who wanted to let the board know they support the Twins and want to be able to watch the team play in an outdoor park.

"I really don't care about the details of the stadium. I care that the Twins stay in Minneapolis," said Carolyn Lawrence, a grandmother who lives in Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park neighborhood. "We don't have many things that bring us together, but the Twins every 10 years or so win a pennant and they do that."

Opponents of the stadium cited environmental concerns about the proposed Rapid Park site, located next to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center; called for a referendum to let the public decide if it wanted to be taxed; and questioned the proposed $484 million price tag compared to other stadia built for less money that included retractable roofs.

But other fans argued against the referendum. Brian Sobol noted that "taxes are an emotional issue and emotions often cloud logic. Emotions aren't based on fact, and that's why we elect you, to take the time to study the issues and decide what is best for the county."

Another supporter, Greg Beekstrom, implored the board to "be courageous and make a decision that will benefit Minneapolis in the long run. We don't have a referendum about every infrastructure improvement, and we shouldn't."

After the public testimony wrapped up, the commissioners debated a handful of amendments for more than two hours before making their final statements and casting their votes. Chair Johnson said that, despite its faults, the proposal had his support.

"There is no such thing as a perfect deal," Johnson said, "but clearly it's the most realistic and doable deal I've seen in my years on the county board."

Stenglein added that Minneapolis' thriving business climate is due in large part to the many civic amenities that the city has to offer.

"These towers around us are filled with CEOs and high managers, and I know it's hard to get them to come here," Stenglein said. "But it's even harder for them to leave, and that's because of things like the Vikings, the Guthrie [Theater] and the Twins."

Patrick Donnelly is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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