Minnesota 2020 Journal: Beating Swords into Down Markers
Usually, whenever I encounter a well-dressed PR slick pitching a publicly-funded, professional football stadium, I dig in my heels. Last week, though, I heard something that turned my head because it proposes leveraging a public problem into a public asset.
The north suburban Ramsey County football stadium site proposal merits closer consideration. It’s the first real Vikings stadium location suggestion that moves the political and public policy debates forward, past their current stasis. Here’s why.
First, get out a metropolitan Twin Cities map. Find the blob at the intersection of Interstate 35W and County Road 96. If your map has sufficient detail, this spot is conspicuously devoid of streets compared to adjacent Arden Hills and New Brighton. That’s because the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, as the area is known, is a superfund cleanup site.
With the U.S.’ entry into World War II, the federal government rapidly expanded its defense manufacturing capacity. The rural, northern Ramsey County site was ideal for munitions manufacturing. It was close to rail supply lines, had an ample labor force, was located in the middle of the continental U.S. and, relative to the 1942-era Twin Cities metropolitan community, out in the near-middle of nowhere.
Under the direction of what is now the U.S. Army’s Industrial Operations Command, defense contractors manufactured small arms munitions. They made bullets, on and off, until the Vietnam War ended and, even then, continued producing in limited capacity until 2005. Along the way, the Twin Cities Arsenal, as it’s known to older residents, created a hell of a toxic mess, eventually earning it a superfund clean-up designation.
The munitions manufacturing process used highly toxic chemicals. Leftovers were dumped on the ground much as everyone dumped whatever they didn’t want or need where they pleased. Except, of course, Arsenal contractors were dumping industrial grade solvents. Additionally, for quality control purposes, a percentage of newly produced rounds were test-fired into an earthen berm. Over time, the millions of bullets leached lead, slowly contaminating the groundwater. Like I said, it’s a mess.
Environmental rehabilitation began in 1986. While remarkable progress has been made, the effort won’t be complete for years. Some areas within the grounds’ 2300 acres will never be safe for residential housing. Too much nasty stuff was dumped. It can and is being remediated but even clean-up has its limits. Consequently, Minnesota has a big chunk of space, in the middle of a large metropolitan area, available for development that actually has fairly limited future use.
I know this because, as the late Congressman Bruce Vento’s last District Director, I used to attend the Army’s quarterly clean-up reporting meetings. The TCAAP site represents great risk and great potential. It could be ideal for an NFL stadium, the idea being to replace one toxic asset with another.
Like most Minnesotans, I oppose subsidizing billionaire football team owners. It rubs me the wrong way, suggesting a misalignment of public priorities. The traditional, civic booster-flavored defense of building public facilities for privately owned sports franchises smacks of self-interest masquerading as civic virtue. Absent the Vikings, Minneapolis is still Minneapolis, not a cold Omaha.
Contemplating the larger, regional economic development picture works against the downtown stadium option. Tearing down the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome only to replace it with another, even more football-specific stadium strikes me as, at best, a very limited vision for community economic development. Another big sports facility, shoe-horned into downtown Minneapolis’s already complex economic mix, is unlikely to achieve maximum marginal economic gain on the investment. It’s just more pro football at a higher cost, lower returns and longer bond repayment schedule.
Rather than blithely following conventional development norms, Minnesota needs to think on a larger scale. If public policy debate narrowly centers on a football stadium, it will remain mired, attracting only modest support. To move forward, the game must change.
Consider Bloomington’s strong commercial base anchoring the south metro area. It’s wrong to suggest that the TCAAP site could become a “new Bloomington,” but it’s important to appreciate the complex commercial success possible. The Arden Hills/New Brighton/Shoreview area is nice but it’s mostly residential. It could be much more and, in the process, drive Twin Cities and Minnesota economic growth.
A TCAAP football stadium doesn’t represent a simple stake in the ground. If done correctly, it becomes the big top’s center post, driving and supporting wide-ranging economic development. In other words, this project isn’t about Vikings football; it concerns Minnesota’s future prosperity. It’s about growing jobs, attracting business, expanding communities, and creating value.
If we can transform a toxic asset -a former bedrock of military industrial production- into an economic development platform with wide-ranging impact then, yes, Minnesota should consider building a new professional football stadium. If returned soldiers can turn their swords into plowshares, perhaps some public good can still come from TCAAP.