Mankato loses on grant attempt for civic centerPublished 9:58am Friday, September 14, 2012
By Dan Linehan, Mankato Free Press
MANKATO — The city’s hopes for state money to expand the Verizon Wireless Center were dashed Thursday for the fifth year in a row, after Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include any civic centers in a list of grant recipients.
“Unfortunately, they did not score quite high enough in DEED’s rating to qualify for funding,” Dayton said of requests to expand civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.
The Department of Employment and Economic Development scored 37 projects, after eliminating 53 others, that sought some of the $47.5 million in bonding money allocated by the Legislature earlier this year.
Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said he was not entirely surprised the city’s $14.5 million request was left out. He also suggested Dayton had a political motive in allocating the money. Duluth received $8.5 million for a downtown redevelopment project, and the St. Paul Saints received $25 million for a new stadium. He said St. Paul and Duluth are strong bases for the Democrat.
Hentges said the city of St. Paul and the Saints had a “good project” but “politically, through negotiations, managed to slice out the lion’s share of this funding.”
During his morning press conference, Dayton repeatedly denied politics had anything to do with the awards.
“They made their judgments and I accepted them,” he said of the DEED scoring list. He acknowledged one exception — the Southwest Corridor Light Rail Line, which received $2 million. He said DEED underestimated the number of jobs created by the project because it only accounted for the jobs created by this specific part, not the whole project.
“If I had inserted my preferences, it would have undermined the credibility of the program,” Dayton said. … “I don’t know how better you could insulate this from politics.”
Compared with the civic center’s other rejections for state money, this one may sting the most. There’s concern that the DEED scoring system will tarnish the project in the future.
“The disappointing part of this is the damage that was done to civic centers, or specifically to Mankato, with DEED’s scoring system,” Hentges said. “They obviously have an outdated model, obviously don’t understand the value to development civic centers have done” in transforming downtowns.
He said the city will still pursue information about how the score was developed.
“I don’t think we’re going to let that stand,” Hentges said.
Mankato Democrat Sen. Kathy Sheran agreed, saying civic center advocates should “continue to undermine the validity of these findings” so the low ranking doesn’t become an accepted belief.
Sheran and Dayton also criticized the Legislature for turning over the task to the executive branch. Dayton said he wouldn’t agree to take this role again.
DEED spokesman Blake Chaffee called the work “not a task that we asked for from the Legislature by any means but a task that the staff here and the commissioner took very seriously.”
Mark Phillips, DEED’s commissioner, said during the press conference that the agency “followed the statute to the letter of the law” in scoring the applications.
“At DEED, we’re all about jobs, about private-sector permanent jobs,” he said. The three most influential criteria in the 100-point scale were project readiness, job creation and private-sector investment. These criteria were distilled from a list of 11 priorities laid out in statute.
Mankato’s project suffered most in two areas: job creation, where it lost 10 points, and private-sector investment, where it lost 15 points. The project’s score of 63 left it eighth of 13 projects in the southern part of the state, and behind the two other civic centers.
Hentges credited the civic center as having rub-off effects on the downtown in general; the city’s argument to expand it has rarely been based on direct employment or private-sector spending on the expansion itself.
While that will be up to the City Council, Hentges said his recommendation would be to spend an estimated $3.1 million on needed hockey improvements such as an ice system, hockey boards and some replaced seats.
But he suggests holding off on the rest of the estimated $31.7 million project until the city gets state help.
“We may have to take a tact where we phase this stuff in over time,” he said.
The city’s chances in 2013 are unclear.
Dayton said the three civic centers “as well as other important projects throughout the state” will be at the top of his bonding proposal.
But the size of the bill will be affected by fall elections; Republicans generally support smaller bonding bills than Democrats.
Kevin Watterson, director of media services for the House GOP Caucus, wrote this message on Twitter Thursday morning: “civic centers can’t make it thru the political process or an objective, merit-based funding process. Maybe that should be a signal.”
Hentges said Minnesota State University, the city, legislators and the state need to work together.
Rick Straka, MSU’s vice president for finance and administration, said it was too soon to decide what their next step will be, spokesman Dan Benson said.