Sunday, March 8, 2009

Paying for the Pond

Saint Paul is looking at adding a new 4,000 seat hockey rink across from the Xcel Energy Center that's tentatively called "The Pond." They're proposing that the State of Minnesota forgive millions of dollars in loans used to pay for the Xcel Energy Center in order to free up funds for the new stadium.

Two suggestions on this project: First, increase the seating to 5,000. That's the minimum seating required for nearly any Olympic venue. With all of the colleges and pro teams in town, we really don't have to build all that much in new sports infrastructure to host an Olympic effort if we just leverage what we're already planning in order to serve a future purpose. A little vision can go a long way. The Pond could be a great venue for hosting Olympic Badminton. With the Xcel Energy Center, the Roy Wilkins Auditorium and Harriet Island, you'd have a nice cluster of venues that could host a range of sports.

Second, don't ask the state to give any money for the new stadium. Instead, ask for the right to earn it. You do that through a program I call Books 4 Bricks. Right now, the average lifetime cost of a child dropping out of high school is a little over $400,000. We know where almost all of those kids are coming from: They're kids who were not reading at grade level by the end of third grade and they never caught up. With a targeted program of matching literacy volunteers to at-risk kids, we can match the efforts of both kids and adults with dollars to build civic infrastructure, such as The Pond. Kids and adults that meet certain goals can also earn a brick with their name engraved in it that would be incorporated into The Pond. If we can prevent 100 kids from eventually dropping out, we've covered the cost of the venue. More importantly, we've done three bigger things: We've helped kids read, we've built relationships between kids and caring adults and we've also given kids and adults a huge sense of ownership of their community.

We already have the organizational infrastructure in town to launch this kind of program. There are literacy and volunteer coordination groups that could make this a reality if they were given appropriate support. And the capital project isn't put at risk by being tied to this kind of a program. We can set goals that are challenging but achievable.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Not Just a Local Issue

A commuter rail link from Hastings to Saint Paul is of international importance.

How so? Chicago is making a strong bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. With Barack Obama as President, this bid has special significance to the White House. Winning the Games would go beyond being just a nice thing for a particular American city. It's the hometown for the U.S. President. His prestige is on the line. In addition, winning the right to host the games would be a great symbol of renewed international respect for the United States.

What does this have to do with a rail line in Minnesota? Soccer.

It just so happens that the proposed Red Rock commuter rail line that would connect Minneapolis - Saint Paul with Hastings runs right by the TCF Stadium site. It also happens that the long term plan for the extension of that very same line is a high-speed link to Chicago. A rail line runs right by Soldier Field, the proposed location for soccer finals. In little more than two-and-a-half hours, fans could go from a morning soccer game in Minneapolis to an afternoon or evening soccer game in Chicago, without having to walk more than a few blocks.

Is this significant? Yeah. When evaluating bids, the International Olympic Committee gives greater weight to different aspects of a city's bid. In the top four of those categories is transportation. Recent bids have been hard-fought and very close. Having a high-speed direct rail line between these two important venues could be the difference between winning and losing.

Why would a temporary event be considered as a driver for permanent infrastructure? You'd be foolish to build a rail line just for the Olympics. However, the Olympics provide a catalyst and structure to support projects that need to be done anyway. When you hear of cities spending billions and billions of dollars on the Olympics, it's the infrastructure that's taking the lion's share of the money. These are investments that cities have wanted to make but haven't had a "crisis" to force action. The Olympics forces action.

When you combine the current financial crisis and the need for a fiscal stimulus with the created crisis of an Olympic bid, you have a great opportunity to move the Red Rock project forward.