Passion erupts at stadium bill meeting

Passion erupts at stadium bill meeting

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- For Minnesota Twins players, appearing before vocal and hostile audiences in places like U.S. Cellular Field and Yankee Stadium is a common occurrence. On Thursday night, the proposal for a new Twins ballpark survived a face-to-face meeting with a different kind of vocal and hostile audience.

Meeting in a packed middle school auditorium in Bloomington, Minn., members of the House Tax Committee heard nearly three hours of passionate testimony against the current ballpark bill from people demanding that the legislation include a public referendum. After some testimony from ballpark proponents and discussion among the committee members, the legislators voted 15-13 to defeat an amendment that would've added a referendum to the legislation.

"This was a huge issue for us," said Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports Inc. "This is a very difficult committee, so to be able to move forward with a bill in this shape goes a long way toward getting a ballpark built."

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 600 filled the auditorium at Oak Grove Middle School for the hearing, during which the committee chair, state representative Phil Krinkie, gave ballpark opponents ample time to let their views be known. Krinkie, a Republican from Lino Lakes and an outspoken ballpark opponent, asked that audience members refrain from applause or any other outward displays of emotion during testimony. His request was widely ignored by the exuberant supporters and opponents of the ballpark bill.

Mary Capra, the mayor of Centerville, Minn., was one of the first testifiers to demand a referendum be attached to the bill, saying that residents in Hennepin County and elsewhere feel that they have been abandoned by their county commissioners.

"We are not anti-stadium, but we are pro-referendum," said Capra, who singled out Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty for what she perceives as a lack of leadership from the state's chief executive on this issue. "The Governor could not be more non-committal. We want to know what happened to the man we elected."

Other testifiers against the bill noted the examples of new stadiums either opened or being planned for the Giants, Cardinals and Mets, which have included significantly more private money than is called for in the Twins ballpark proposal. While proposals put forth by Hennepin County and the Twins call for public investment to the tune of $392 million to get the ballpark built, Ken Zapp, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, theorized that with infrastructure factored in, the ballpark project could cost the taxpayers of the county more than $800 million.

When one testifier against the ballpark talked of going to games at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn as a child, a ballpark supporter yelled out, "Where are the Dodgers now?" making an obvious reference to the threat that the Twins could leave Minnesota for lack of a new facility.

Proponents included legendary Twins rightfielder Tony Oliva, who received a standing ovation from the ballpark supporters in attendance before speaking of the importance of baseball in his life and how Minnesota has become his home after growing up in a poor family in Cuba.

"This ballpark could be a dream come true for Minnesota," he said.

John Froom, a director of the Little League program in Crystal, Minn., talked of the vast contributions the Twins have made to youth baseball in his community and throughout Minnesota, and noted a 50 percent jump in numbers of kids playing the game in the past six years, much of which is due to their strong relationship with the Twins.

"That doesn't show up on any tax scorecards," Froom said, echoing the comments of many proponents who said they were willing to pay for a better ballpark and to secure the future of the team in Minnesota. "The Twins get kids away from video games, and they get kids out playing and exercising. Find a way, please."

At the conclusion of the public testimony period, Krinkie offered his amendment to add a referendum to the bill -- a move which Twins and Hennepin County officials had said would kill the project. After the announcement of the vote that defeated Krinkie's referendum amendment, ballpark supporters stood and cheered, while a few opponents yelled, "Shame on you!"

The committee will meet again on Friday morning at the State Office Building in St. Paul, where further amendments and a final vote on the bill are expected.