Soccer stadium goes to St. Paul

New MLS franchise had once looked bound for Minneapolis

Minnesota United fan Nicholas Bisbee cheered on the announcement that a proposed soccer stadium would be built in St. Paul. Credit: Photo by Eric Best

A Major League Soccer stadium once envisioned for a site on the edge of downtown Minneapolis will instead be built in St. Paul.

The commitment by the Minnesota United ownership group, anticipated for weeks, was made official Oct. 23. Team owner Bill McGuire and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman jointly announced the agreement to build a 18,000-seat stadium at the intersection of Snelling and University avenues in the Midway district.

Construction of the $120-million stadium will be privately financed by the team’s ownership group, which includes the owners of the Twins and the Timberwolves professional sports teams. The group is seeking tax exemptions for the Midway site; approved by both the city and Ramsey County, they must still go before the state legislature.

The ownership group won an MLS expansion franchise in March, and initial stadium talks focused on a site near the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Avenue. The league set a July 1 deadline for Minnesota United to firm up an agreement with Minneapolis, but that deadline passed and questions around public subsidies for the project were left hanging in the air.

McGuire told reporters and a pack of fans that they’re expecting to break ground in late May or early June of 2016 after the next legislative session, and they plan to open the stadium in 2018.

“Located between two great downtowns, situated along multiple transit options and the interstate, and in the heart of a dynamic community, this site provides us the opportunity to work in partnership with the city of St. Paul and the local community to establish top-tier professional soccer that will be readily accessible to everyone,” McGuire said.

Currently playing in Blaine, Minnesota United will move from a lower-tier league to MLS, the top professional league in the U.S. and Canada. McGuire has said he hopes the Minnesota United will begin playing with that league in 2017.

The vacant Snelling-Midway site was once a former Metro Transit bus barn and is tax exempt. Lawmakers will need to approve the continuation of that status.

Coleman and the St. Paul City Council will be forming a community advisory committee with 15–20 members tasked with providing input on the stadium’s design and development decisions. 

“There’s a reason why this area is called the Midway,” Coleman said. “It’s the epicenter of the Twin Cities. So while this is an exciting day for the City of St. Paul, this is an exciting day for the region, it’s an exciting day for the state of Minnesota, it’s an exciting day for all the soccer fans.”

Not ready to close the door

Mayor Betsy Hodges congratulated St. Paul and Minnesota United on their agreement.

“Minnesota United wanted permanent tax-free land and Saint Paul has identified a site where city leaders believe that is appropriate,” Hodges wrote. “I wish them both the best with their new partnership.

“If for any reason this partnership doesn’t result in a new facility, I continue to stand ready to talk with the team about sites in Minneapolis and the public infrastructure needed to make those locations successful.

“If Saint Paul’s plans do all come together and a new facility is built in the Midway, I look forward as a lifelong soccer fan to riding the Green Line light rail to watch a Major League match right here in Minnesota.”

Like Hodges, Minneapolis real estate developer Chuck Leer wasn’t ready to close the door on a Minneapolis MLS stadium. Leer is a member of 2020 Partners, a group that unites public and private entities in planning redevelopment around Target Field, the home of the Twins.

“We still believe in the vast potential for redevelopment of the Farmers Market and what that could mean for the neighborhoods across the freeway,” Leer wrote in a statement issued on behalf of 2020 Partners. “We are actively encouraging Hennepin County and Minneapolis to collaborate on a plan for soccer, not to undermine the team or St. Paul but to be ready in case the current plan goes the way that Blaine and Arden Hills did for the Vikings. This collaboration would prove useful for any potential development. We continue to believe the Farmers Market is the best long-term investment for the owners and the region.”

Critics see missed opportunity

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who was in talks with the ownership group to bring the stadium to the city’s “West Loop,” was critical of Hodges.

“When Mayor Hodges dumps all over the proposal and the proposers right out of the chute… we didn’t have a chance,” McLaughlin said. “The tragedy here is that this could have been reaching out to the North Side.”

Council Member Jacob Frey, who negotiated on behalf of the city, said the city’s West Loop area missed out on a rare opportunity, though he hopes Minneapolis will be still be considered if the St. Paul deal goes south. 

“One-hundred-million-dollar-plus investments in struggling areas don’t come around often and when they do you got to listen, negotiate and keep an open mind, and the failure to do so was why Minneapolis lost out to the city leading with some serious vision,” Frey said. “You got to look ahead, but today I’m disappointed.” 

Midway redevelopment planned

St. Paul and MN United officials say the stadium will bring similar development, jobs and new infrastructure to the Midway district.

“We have waited years for the right stimulus to help drive redevelopment of this area into a more vibrant part of a highly progressive community,” said Richard Birdoff of RK Midway who owns 25 acres surrounding the area in a statement. 

McGuire, a former UnitedHealth Group CEO, said the area is attractive because of its central location and mass transit, in addition to having room to expand. McGuire said they would disclose the developer and design team of the stadium in the near future.

The stadium announcement was attended by dozens of Minnesota professional soccer fans, dubbed Dark Clouds. For Nicholas Bisbee and Mykel Hosek, who both attended the initial MN United announcement in March, the stadium announcement seven months later was very exciting.

“We’re there for history twice,” Bisbee, co-founder of the True North Elite fan group, said. “I think we actually have the opportunity to right now make a historic facility in this spot. … We can focus on the stadium being the jewel.”

While MLS Commissioner Don Garber did not speak at the announcement, he has given his approval of the site.

“Today we are one step closer toward the debut of Major League Soccer in Minnesota,” Garber said in a statement.

 

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To keep tabs on the stadium development, the team has a project website at www.newstpaulstadium.com