Major League Soccer left the future of a Minnesota franchise in doubt Monday, saying that it is sticking to a July 1 deadline for a local group to finalize its plan for a soccer-only stadium in Minneapolis.
The comments by Mark Abbott, MLS' deputy commissioner, came only two days after the Legislature adjourned for the year without considering a public subsidy package proposed by a group led by former UnitedHealth Group executive Bill McGuire. McGuire's group, which includes the owners of the Twins and Glen Taylor, the owner of the Timberwolves and Star Tribune, had pledged to privately build a soccer stadium, but sought a series of property-tax breaks and other tax reductions.
But the plan immediately ran into opposition at the State Capitol, where legislators seemed weary of subsidizing a fourth major stadium in Minnesota in fewer than 10 years. One key legislator also said that MLS may have waited too long to award the franchise, and then expected financial help as the Legislature entered its final weeks.
Three months after McGuire's group was awarded the franchise with great fanfare, a top MLS executive said the league was holding firm.
"One of the primary reasons [we] selected Minnesota and its ownership group was this plan" to build a soccer-only stadium, said Abbott. The plan, he said, "needs to be something that's final enough so that we understand and know that it will ultimately be built."
"July 1st is the deadline that we put out there in March, and it remains the deadline," said Abbott. "We're going to decide [what happens next] on July 1, or closer to July 1st."
No indication of next move
McGuire's group, which has insisted it needs the tax breaks, gave little indication what would happen next.
"We are disappointed the Legislature didn't take any action regarding our stadium proposal this year," said Nick Rogers, the president of Minnesota United FC, a lower-level professional soccer team owned by McGuire. "We are still dedicated to moving forward with the stadium project."
McGuire's group appeared to have won the fight for an MLS franchise in March, besting the Wilf family, the owners of the Minnesota Vikings, who wanted to have an MLS team play in the Vikings' new $1 billion indoor stadium that is being built. Minnesota appeared to have moved ahead of Las Vegas and Sacramento, Calif., two other cities competing for a franchise.
McGuire, who met with key leaders at the Capitol in mid-April, asked for a property-tax exemption and a sales-tax break on construction materials. He said last month that building the stadium — even privately — would be "very difficult" without the tax breaks.
Abbott said that McGuire's proposal to legislators was "very fair" and that "I was surprised that at least [as of] today there hadn't been legislative action taken."
But the job of pushing a public subsidy package through the Legislature — even one that was relatively modest — never was viewed as an easy task.
"With MLS taking so long in deciding" which city would get the franchise, said state Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, a soccer stadium supporter, it "just seemed to be a little bit too late.
"We were so far into the session," said Dehn.
Dehn, whose legislative district includes the stadium site, said he believed the tax breaks were needed to ease the financial losses the franchise would face initially. The franchise, he said, needed "anything that minimized what that loss is."
Minneapolis officials, led by City Council Member Jacob Frey, did not publicly unveil a city subsidy package until May 18 — the last day of the Legislature's regular session. The package, which Frey said had substantial City Council backing, still may not have had enough votes to withstand a veto by Mayor Betsy Hodges, a stadium subsidy opponent.
The city's proposal, featuring a menu of tax breaks needing legislative approval, would freeze property taxes on three parcels near Target Field that McGuire's group was eyeing for a stadium. The three parcels' total tax bill is now $343,000 annually. The city's plan would also extend the city's entertainment and beverage tax district to the stadium site and make the stadium available for some public use.
Frey also said the July 1 deadline was seen as a roadblock to getting a public subsidy package in place.
"Clearly, there needs to be some progress, [but] I don't know exactly what that progress needs to look like" to MLS officials, he added.
Barely on the radar
As DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders jockeyed in early June over what would be discussed during a special session of the Legislature — which took place Friday — McGuire's soccer stadium barely was on the radar.
"It has not been mentioned one time," Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said late last week. "It really has not been part of any conversation. And we didn't have any outside groups pushing us on it, either. I don't know if they saw the writing on the wall, but there was just no discussion of that in final negotiations."
If anything, the opposition to providing any public subsidies, at least on the state level, seemed to have more momentum. A proposal by Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, to prohibit any state money for McGuire's soccer stadium — a move that might block even the smallest type of state assistance — was removed only in the final hours of the regular session.
Petersen said the city's subsidy package — or even a similar Hennepin County proposal — might be viewed differently if they did not involve state money. "It does change the issue a bit for myself," he said.
However, Petersen said he would oppose any attempt to divert countywide sales taxes being collected by Hennepin County for Target Field for a soccer stadium. "That's a direct subsidy. That's even worse than [a tax] exemption. That's just giving them money in their pocket," he added.
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this article.