March 16th, 2006

Some Seek to Nullify U Stadium Naming Rights Deal

By Mike Kaszuba
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Momentum may be building to undo plans for TCF Financial Corp. to have a naming rights agreement for a new on-campus football stadium at the University of Minnesota.

State Senate leaders have introduced a bill that would prohibit the university from using private money for the $248 million stadium if the donors are allowed to determine the stadium’s name, a move that could unravel the stadium’s financing.

A year ago, university officials announced that they had reached an agreement with TCF that, over 25 years, would bring $35 million from the bank in exchange for naming the facility "TCF Bank Stadium."

But Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said that the stadium’s fortunes were being hurt because legislators were privately uncomfortable with the TCF agreement and that the stadium ought to be entirely funded with public money. Pogemiller is being joined by Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar.

Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, who sponsored the university’s stadium proposal, said that while he does not support Pogemiller, the issue is dividing legislators. Abrams said the university’s School of Management is named for the late Curt Carlson, the Carlson Companies’ founder.

"Who do you think that was named after, or which companies were involved there?" Abrams said.

Pogemiller said the stadium’s naming agreement, however, takes the issue a step too far. "Naming a public facility in a business deal after a private corporation—I do believe that’s a problem," he said. A plan to charge students a fee to help fund the stadium, along with the naming rights agreement, were the two provisions "in the way" of approving the plan, he said.

"Nothing is happening on the stadium," Pogemiller said. "They don’t have anything going right now."

Though university officials said the bills do not yet appear to have widespread backing, they acknowledged that the proposals could insert a major complication into the stadium’s chances this session.

Richard Pfutzenreuter, the university’s chief financial officer, said the university is concerned that the proposals would not only jeopardize financing for the stadium, but also would have a chilling affect on other attempts to obtain corporate and philanthropic contributions.

"We’re a little nervous," added Pfutzenreuter, who said legislative opposition so far is confined to "a pocket here, a pocket [there]."

"We still absolutely believe that the plan we have is the best one," he said.

TCF spokesman Jason Korstange said that the company will not get involved in the debate and that there is no indication it is being driven by political opposition to TCF Chairman Bill Cooper, one of the state’s most influential Republicans and a former state party chairman. "We just hold to that commitment," he said. "Quite frankly, it is the university’s deal."

For now, it may be difficult to determine just how critical the issue may become.

"I think a lot of other legislators are quietly uncomfortable with that kind of stuff," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who said he intends to introduce language on the House floor asking that the naming rights agreement be eliminated from the plan. "I’m not sure if I am going to vote for [a stadium] with a corporate name on it."

Under the university’s proposal, the 50,000-seat stadium would be built with $99 million in state money and $149 million raised by the university. Of the $149 million, university officials said that they have secured $53 million in corporate and philanthropic contributions and that they would get another $53 million from a plan to charge students $50 a semester in fees to support the project. Once state funds are committed, Pfutzenreuter said, the university will seek the remaining $43 million from private donors.

Abrams said he plans to push the stadium proposal forward, but acknowledged that critics are "grabbing hold of" the student-fee and naming-rights provisions. "It’s going to be a debate that we’re going to have," he said.

At the Capitol

On Tuesday, the university’s challenges in getting the stadium approved were on display at a meeting of the House Capital Investment Committee. Chairman Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, said that the university is not making its priorities clear and that it is trying instead to separate the stadium from its other academic-related building requests.

University President Robert Bruininks defended the separation. "I would urge this state not to make it a choice between academic and nonacademic priorities."

Dorman said he, too, has problems with the naming rights agreement. "The more I look at it, the less I like the plan," he said of the overall stadium proposal. "It’s starting to look like there’s more and more problems with the way it was configured."

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