MLS fight won, Minnesota United still going through ‘process’ of financing facility
MINNEAPOLIS — Sometimes, the endgame is fully recognized only upon achievement.
There was no singular moment, no "a-ha!" juncture that led Minnesota United FC to the precipice of Major League Soccer membership. If there’s any anecdote that resonates, it’s the tale of owner Dr. Bill McGuire with his then-son-in-law and current team president Nick Rogers sitting at a Loons game in 2012, marveling at the spectacle and deciding to purchase the team and save it from potential termination. But this was more of a developing fancy, one forced by external circumstances, built on a paradoxically vague-but-clear mission and now contingent upon state lawmakers — even though the Minnesota legislature just broke camp at midnight Monday night without passing anything related to soccer stadium tax relief.
But six days prior, Rogers sat in the back room at Yum kitchen and bakery on the Minneapolis-St. Louis Park border, stared down a plate of baja mahi tacos and said he anticipated the team’s proposal — which includes an estimated $3 million in sales tax exemption, property tax exemption and "limits on future local taxes levied on the facility and operations that do not currently exist," according to the club’s pitch released last month — will go through.
"I think our project is important, and it’s important to the future of Minnesota, Minneapolis in some very interesting ways, but (the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives have) got sort of bigger fish to fry, and it’s a matter of figuring out where what we’re trying to do fits into that bigger puzzle they’re trying to put together," said Rogers during that lunch. "I’m hopeful. I’m very hopeful."
Since MLS commissioner Don Garber formally awarded the league’s 23rd expansion franchise to McGuire’s group, Rogers — the point man for United’s day-to-day business efforts — can speak more plainly on the matter. Looking back, the organization existed to provide the Twin Cities premier professional soccer, no matter the level, he’s insisted from the beginning.
But when the Minnesota Vikings introduced a public bid to host an MLS team in their new indoor stadium, United’s hand was forced. Playing in the second-tier North American Soccer League, the club’s current home, didn’t look like a viable long-term solution anymore.
Observers knew it. But today, Rogers admits it. And as a result, over in downtown Minneapolis’ North Loop, they’re anticipating the construction of a $120 million, soccer-specific venue near the Minneapolis Farmers Market — the kind of arena Garber and MLS prefer.
So here United is, midway through its NASL spring season and trying to lobby citizen and legislator support for a plan it’s labeled "privately financed." Opponents, including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, say that’s a misnomer and cite the market’s "stadium fatigue" (the Vikings stadium, Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium all were built in the past six years) as reason to prohibit any public contributions, which adversaries say include tax breaks. But reports indicate there could be enough city council support to override a mayoral veto. Hennepin County could play a role, too, depending on what, if anything, can get accomplished at the state level.
It’s a political mish-mash complicated further by an MLS-imposed July 1 stadium plan deadline. If the exemptions aren’t ratified by then, can McGuire’s group — which includes Twins owners the Pohlad family, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Carlson Companies’ Wendy Carlson Nelson — go on without them?
McGuire won’t say. Neither will his right-hand man.
"I don’t want to speculate," Rogers said. "We’ve said what we think we need to do to move forward, and that’s around these particular tax measures. We’re still pursuing that, and I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful that we’ll get something done here. I don’t want to get into speculating about, ‘What if we don’t?’"
What United brass can say, though, is that this is bigger than the sport. Developers are already discussing how best to use the land around the proposed stadium site in a part of town that’s been woefully underdeveloped. Proposed plans include a new light rail hub, Farmers Market enhancements and a restaurant district similar to Chicago’s "Eataly."
"You can’t put something in a community, plop it down in the middle of downtown and just say, ‘OK, we’re here. We’re doing it,’" McGuire said in March when the team’s move to MLS was announced. "I think we’ll have a good vision, and it’s not . . . just about soccer. We think there are important things for that community over there, and we have some ideas about how to tie all that in and help spur what many would call transportation-enhanced development in an important part of town."
There’s more than just a stadium to worry about, though. Once that plan’s in place, Rogers said, the club will begin looking into developing MLS-mandated development academies in addition to its current on-field operations.
After a 3-1 win at Indy Eleven on Saturday, the Loons are 2-3-1 and fourth in place in the NASL’s spring standings. With this spring’s news driving interest, they’ve sold out both their home games at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine.
United will play in the NASL until it makes the jump, which could happen as early as 2017, Garber says.
Provided, of course, this organization’s evolution is allowed to continue on its current trajectory.
"We’ve got time for that," Garber said two months ago. "We have confidence that they will get their stadium project completed. If we didn’t have confidence in them, we wouldn’t (have awarded them a franchise)."
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