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Twins secure more funding for park

Twins secure more funding for park

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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- By the time he left the chambers of the Hennepin County board of commissioners on Tuesday, Jerry Bell's face bore a look similar to a baseball player whose team had just won an 18-inning marathon. Bell, the president of Twins Sports, Inc., was all smiles after the county board voted 4-3 to authorize a small sales tax extension to fund part of a new Twins ballpark.

"I'm delighted," Bell beamed to a throng of reporters outside the board chambers after the final vote was taken. "I want to thank the county board for its courage, and baseball fans in the state of Minnesota should be very thankful to the county board for securing the future of baseball in Minnesota."

The vote came after nearly two hours of debate before a packed house at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis -- a few blocks south of the site upon which the new ballpark will be built. Commissioner Mike Opat, who negotiated the original agreement between the Twins and the county, noted how far they'd come in two years, from the original negotiations in which no site had been chosen and no contribution from the Twins had been secured.

"Today, we're ready," Opat said. "I'm anxious to take this vote, to get moving and to build the best ballpark in baseball."

Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, also a ballpark supporter, recalled working in a run-down East Coast city after graduating from college, and said he supported taking steps like this one to prevent urban decay in Minneapolis.

"Survival is not a given for inner cities. You need to find strategies to help them survive and thrive. And Minneapolis has done a good job on that front thus far," McLaughlin said, noting the provisions included in the ballpark tax proposal that will mean millions for libraries and amateur sports in the county. "This investment in a ballpark is the next generation of those kinds of investments that will allow our inner city to thrive. It's a positive step that is going to make our community better."

Several ballpark opponents attended Tuesday's meeting, including a handful bearing signs and wearing T-shirts calling for a public referendum to approve or reject the sales tax extension. Commissioner Linda Koblick, who voted against the proposal, spoke to their concerns, saying that they should have had a referendum to give Hennepin County voters a say in the process.

"It's not about baseball. Everybody loves baseball. This is about a long-term tax," Koblick said, adding that Hennepin County won't own the stadium, and that it will be difficult to shut off the sales tax in 30 years, when the ballpark bonds are scheduled to be paid off.

Supporters on hand included several members of the local union building trades, who have loudly voiced their enthusiasm for this project which is expected to mean 500 construction jobs. Before the vote was taken, Commissioner Randy Johnson gave voice to the continued lingering threat that the Twins could leave the state after more than 45 years for lack of a new ballpark.

"This could be a very cold, flat spot on the prairie unless we make investments like this one," Johnson said. "This is not a perfect deal, but there are no perfect deals when it comes to matters like this."

The vote authorizes the county to begin imposing a .015 percent sales tax, the proceeds of which will be used to fund a portion of the ballpark. The Twins will pay $130 million of the total price tag, which is expected to be $522 million. The new 42,000-seat open-air ballpark will be built in the Warehouse District, north of Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Bell said the final steps toward getting construction started are a development agreement and a lease. He said that the team does not have formal agreements with an architect or a construction manager, but expects them to be completed soon. Bell said upon completion of an environmental impact study, he anticipated breaking ground for the facility next summer and that the first games will be played there in April 2010.

"This has been a 10-year effort with so many ups and downs it would be hard to count them all," Bell said. "But persistence played a role."

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