State legislators keep U stadium bills alive

Than Tibbetts

The University’s push for an on-campus stadium began again at the State Capitol along with the start of a new legislative session.

The proposed $235 million project would place an open-air, 50,000-seat stadium on the site of the Huron Boulevard Parking Complex.

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, introduced two bills relating to the proposed Gophers stadium within the last two weeks.

Michel described the first bill as a copycat version of last year’s bill, which died with the legislative session. The second bill, he said, was updated to reflect some of the University’s concerns.

One major change is the percentage of support the state would provide. Last year’s bill offered 25 percent support, while the updated bill calls for 40 percent from the state. University officials have consistently asked for a “60-40” partnership with the state.

“I thought the University, at a minimum, should have their goal, so I wanted to get that into the legislative discussion, too,” Michel said. “I think that’s something that will naturally be discussed and negotiated as we go forward.”

Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, introduced a copy of Michel’s first bill, while Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, introduced a second stadium bill in the House.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who is a co-author of both House bills, said there will be some opposition to the stadium proposal, especially if the Legislature has a hard time funding higher education.

“But it is such a different kind of funding,” he said about the stadium project. “Borrowing money for a physical stadium is so much different than general funds to operate the University. It’s a different world.”

Athletics Director Joel Maturi said he is pleased with what he has heard from Michel and other legislators.

“I think they’ve really embraced the plan that the University of Minnesota has put together,” he said.

Time for action

University officials said they are anxious to get started on the stadium project.

Already, the project has seen a jump in its estimated cost, from the $222 million originally projected to the current $235 million estimate. Inflation and the increasing costs of building materials contributed to the larger estimate.

Mahoney said Gov. Tim Pawlenty has indicated he supports the idea along with many legislators.

“It’s time to build these stadiums,” Mahoney said. “We’ve been dickering around here for 10 years.”

Maturi said everything is in line to start moving forward on the stadium project.

“It’s a matter of us now going up and energizing some Minnesota corporations into partnering with us and moving forward on this darn thing.”

Searching for donors

Maturi said he and other University officials continue to court private and corporate sponsors.

“People, I think, are willing to help. It’s just, at this point, we haven’t been able to get major naming opportunities,” he said. “That’s obviously where we have to start, and we’ll keep working at it.”

Michel’s stadium bills have been referred to the Senate Finance Committee. He said he does not expect – and would not ask for – the bills to be heard in committee until March at the earliest.

“We need to get working on things like the budget and a bonding bill,” he said.

The bills stipulate that the University must have firm commitments for its $141 million share of the proposed stadium partnership with the state.

Michel added that the break gives the University plenty of time to keep lobbying and “bragging” about additional donors.

“We’re still waiting for the big donor – the ‘Big Kahuna,’ ” he said.