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Saints ballpark be praised

If spring is in the air, it’s once again time for the St. Paul Saints to make another run at a new ballpark. But fans of the team will probably be spending at least three more years at Midway Stadium, as the short-term prospects for a new ballpark are not encouraging.
If spring is in the air, it’s once again time for the St. Paul Saints (independent; American Association) to make another run at a new ballpark.

This is a story we follow closely. First, St. Paul is our backyard — literally — and readers know we pay close attention to the stories in our backyard. And we know and like the folks at the Saints.

But we’re not totally optimistic about the team’s chances of landing a new ballpark, at least in the next year or two. Right now the discussion is focused on where a new ballpark could go; a downtown site near the St. Paul Farmer’s Market is still under consideration, while there’s also talk of a site on the city’s West End as well. The West End site isn’t new, either; we reported on its potential as a ballpark home two years ago.

The site discussions are a nice diversion, giving us pleasant thoughts of summer and sunshine at a time when our western neighbors are being pummeled by flooding and blizzards. They ignore the 900-pound gorilla in the corner: who is going to finance a new $20-million ballpark?

Realistically, there are three options: the city, the state and a private developer.

First of all, you need to remember that Minnesota is a state that doesn’t build new ballparks very often. Take the new Twins ballpark out of the equation, and it’s been 1971 since a new pro-level baseball-only facility opened in the state of Minnesota. (Trivia fans will note the facility was Dick Putz Field, which opened as the home of the St. Cloud Rox, who played there just one year before the original Northern League folded.) Midway Stadium, the Saints’ current home, opened in 1982 as a joint baseball/football stadium, and it’s still used for high-school football every fall.

We’re not talking about a state that spends a lot of time and money on ballparks. Indeed, we can’t find any instances of the state actually funding a ballpark. Duluth’s Wade Stadium was built with local and WPA funds; Mankato’s Franklin Rogers Field was built with local funds; Rochester’s Mayo Field was built with local funds; Minneapolis baseball boosters financed Metropolitan Stadium; and Dick Putz Field was built with local funds. Even the Twins’ new ballpark is being built with county and team funds. Selling the Saints as a regional draw will be difficult.

And when the Saints last approached the state for funding in 2008, the request was denied without a whole lot of discussion. There’s no talk of a ballpark this session, and we don’t expect a better reception if state funding is sought during 2010’s bonding session of the Minnesota Legislature: the big topic then will be how the state finances a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, and sports spending of all sorts will be under intense scrutiny. (Indeed, the best political strategy may be to piggyback off the Vikes’ plans and argue that if Minneapolis is getting a new billion-dollar stadium, the least St. Paul should get is a $20-million Saints ballpark.)

So that leaves the city and a private developer.

Does the city of St. Paul have $20 million for a new ballpark? We’re not optimistic. Cities of all sizes in Minnesota are suffering through budget cutbacks and decreased state aid. There will be a political battle in moving a new ballpark out of the Midway area, and there’s a hardcore, vocal set of Saints fans opposed to any new ballpark. Don’t underestimate their ability to make noise. Still, the city is the Saints’ best chance of landing a new ballpark.

The third option — enlisting the aid of a private developer- – is tenuous at best. At a time when obtaining financing for large projects is still extremely difficult, the notion a developer could craft a project that includes $20 million for a ballpark is iffy, to be sure. The city can certainly sweeten any development efforts with tax-increment financing and other incentives, but whether that’s enough to persuade a developer to take a chance on ballpark construction remains to be seen.

We don’t mean to be so pessimistic about the future of a new Saints ballpark: we’d love to see it, though we’re a little curious as to why am renovation of Midway Stadium, complete with the installation of a suite level, isn’t part of the discussion. But it’s important to be realistic about what a Herculean task a new ballpark represents; talk of where a ballpark could go is the least-important decision in the process.

This article originally appeared in the weekly Ballpark Digest newsletter. You can sign up for a free subscription at the Newsletter Signup Page.

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