Legislature shouldn’t ice Wild arena funds

The Legislature soundly rejected public financing for a new Twins stadium in late 1997. Many of the same lawmakers oppose current plans for state help in building a new hockey arena for an NHL expansion team, the Minnesota Wild. Their opposition, however, is weaker and much more subject to compromise, although many obstacles remain. From stadiums to convention centers, lawmakers can’t seem to come up with a way to raise or allocate funds for whatever project comes their way. Last minute suggestions to use the Target Center as the new hockey home were quickly dismissed. The St. Paul Civic Center awaits the wrecking ball. The Vikings want the Metrodome exclusively for football. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities has a new NHL franchise all dressed up with nowhere to play.
Combined with the Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves, the hockey franchise brings the number of professional Minnesota sports teams to four. That’s a lot of competition. Once all the political smoke clears, it becomes apparent that each team wants its own stadium. Three of the teams, the three most likely to still be here in a year, compete against each other in winter. Many observers speculate whether the hockey team can attract enough fans based on the current player roster. Good players require good salaries. A new team can cut salary costs to finance its arena, but only at the expense of playing inexperienced or untested players. But struggling teams don’t draw fans, any team’s main source of revenue.
Another non state source of funds would come from non-hockey events in the new arena. But the recent generation of sports facilities is single-use. Any concessions made to non-hockey events would compromise the quality and profitability of the arena for its NHL tenants. Besides, the Twin Cities already has the Target Center, the Metrodome and two convention centers for large events. A multi-use hockey arena is likely to be a zero-sum proposition for the metro area.
User-fee taxes are an option for legislators weary of paying general funds for a sports arena. Lawmakers can consider an admissions tax, a player’s salary tax and a parking tax. A car rental tax, a sports clothing tax and even a sports lottery are other options. But taxing drinks, hotels and car rentals is bound to upset many non-stadium users. Raising money from slot machines at Canterbury Park is possible, but is an idea consistently rejected by the majority of legislators.
Under the current plan, publicly financed loans would pay $95 million of the $130 million cost of the new hockey arena. The team picks up the remaining $35 million, plus any additional cost overruns. If the city of St. Paul wants the arena, it should expect to pay part of the bill. But legislators still must assemble a finance package that balances public and private financing. And the balance sheet needs to assure the state it won’t be stuck with unpaid loans in 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, hockey players are gearing up and very soon, they’re going to need some ice with a roof over it. Minnesota should be proud to host a pro hockey team, but lawmakers must be honest about the need for a new arena.