Legislature approves U football stadium

by Jim Hammerand

Gophers football will return to campus after state lawmakers, precariously close to the legislative deadline, passed a bill this weekend that would pay for more than half the cost of an on-campus stadium without restricting the University’s fundraising ability.

The University is to begin construction of the 50,000-seat, horseshoe-shape stadium this summer, paid for over 25 years through student fees, TCF Bank naming rights and private contributions. The state is to cover 55 percent of the stadium’s cost, or $10.25 million per year.

A conference committee charged with negotiating the finer points of the bill scrapped language in the Senate bill that would have prohibited using student fees or naming rights to pay for the $248 million stadium and eliminated a proposed memorabilia tax.

The Senate passed the final stadium bill by a vote of 43-24, and the House by a vote of 96- 37.

Increased student fees

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, ushered his on-campus stadium bill through the Senate with the idea that public dollars should pay for the stadium, not student fees or naming rights.

Most of his bill was rejected by the committee including a tax on sports memorabilia to finance the stadium.

“This is a simple choice between state revenue (paying for the stadium) and a $200 tax on students over a four-year period,” Pogemiller said.

University President Bob Bruininks countered that students have contributed financially to University projects in “literally dozens of examples.”

“When Memorial Stadium was built, alumni participated in raising a good many of the funds that went into building the stadium, but so did students,” Bruininks said. “Students did participate financially not only there but in building the student union, in remodeling the student union several times, most recently in the last few years.

“I don’t believe that $200 over four years is a particularly burdensome problem.”

UMore Park land transfer

The University has pledged to keep students’ contributions at or below $25 per semester through a land deal in the bill, although Bruininks said the fee likely would be half that. Under this provision, the University will transfer 2,840 acres of UMore Park near Rosemount to the state.

In exchange, the state will make additional contributions to keep student fees down.

The University currently uses the land for research and outreach. The transfer allows the University to continue to use the land as it does now.

Lawmakers have asked how polluted the land is from its previous use. A U.S. military gunpowder plant used to occupy the land given to the University in 1947.

Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, who later would vote against the bill, said in committee that the University had never assumed environmental liability from the federal government.

“The University has been working with the feds and they’re in the process of determining the type of environmental contamination,” Moua said. “It’s pretty probable that once that determination is made, the feds are going to step in to clean that up.”

TCF Bank Stadium?

TCF Bank has offered $35 million to name the stadium TCF Bank Stadium. University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the University is “happy with the deal.” That agreement is set to expire June 30.

The committee did not adopt provisions in the Senate bill preventing stadium funding via naming deals, nor did it accept Veterans’ Memorial Stadium as the on-campus stadium’s name.

Bruininks said the TCF Bank deal frees up money for other University projects.

“I’d rather have the money in the biomedical science building, as we sit here today and debate this issue, than I would face the prospect of giving up this commitment and replacing it either with state money or additional private support,” Bruininks said.

Bruininks estimated that the size of the TCF Bank agreement equaled “80 to 100 separate substantial (financial) commitments.”

Still to happen

With legislative obstacles cleared, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty said he would sign the bill sometime this week on campus.

The University still has to raise more than $50 million in private support, but Bruininks said that there will be a “sharp increase in interest in the Gopher stadium.” He hopes to have the stadium ready by the fall 2009 football season.

Greek and Latin junior Joe McDonald said he is looking forward to Gophers games in the new stadium. He purchased season tickets two years ago, but went to only a couple of games in the “boring” Metrodome, he said.

“I like the open-air idea, the idea of being outside Ö it’s more traditional,” McDonald said.

But Bruininks said an on-campus stadium is not just about football.

“It provides an opportunity to bring the community of Minnesota together with the community of the University,” Bruininks said.