Accusations fly over Duluth Entertainment Center moneyby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Some journalists are calling this "the stadium session," but the only sports facility which had already received public support in a referendum got skunked at the Capitol. Earlier this year Duluth voters gave the go-ahead for a $67-million expansion for the Duluth Entertainment and Conference Center. The project included a new ice-arena for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. But it didn't survive the final political scramble at the legislature. Project supporters blame the governor.
Duluth, Minn. — The plan was a major expansion of Duluth's entertainment complex, the DECC. It included new parking and other improvements, but the biggest part of the project would have been a brand new hockey arena, primarily for use by the University of Minnesota-Duluth's college hockey teams. The state was asked to pick up half the $67-million cost, in the bonding bill.
But the expansion was in trouble from the start, left off Gov. Pawlenty's initial list of preferred projects.
Still, it was kept alive, although only on life support, right until the end. The DECC project made it into a late version of the Senate's bonding bill, only to be pulled again, under a threat from Gov. Pawlenty, according to Duluth DFL Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon.
She says the governor promised to veto $28 million in other spending if the Senate kept the DECC expansion in its bill.
"It's a terrible disappointment for the City of Duluth, and I think in some ways we were used as a pawn," she says.
In public Pawlenty said he'd support the project if Duluth voters approved their local share in a referendum. Prettner-Solon says the governor's support was in public only.
"He never thought that our referendum was going to pass," she says. "I think, first he thought we'd never hold it. And secondly I think he was very surprised that it passed and passed so overwhelmingly. And so he was in a spot where he had to follow through on a promise that he'd made publicly, and propose a supplemental addition to his bonding bill that included the DECC, and the money for it. But I don't think there ever was any intention to push it through once it got to that point."
Prettner-Solon says the governor gets what he wants in the bonding bill, and if he'd really supported the DECC expansion, it would have happened.
Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson agrees. Bergson too, places the lack of support at Gov. Pawlenty's feet.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed," he says. "We had promises from the governor, and he didn't come through." The support, Bergson says, went instead to big stadium projects.
"I was singing the praises of the governor for pledging to us that this was going to happen, and it didn't," the mayor says. "They were doing cartwheels down there to see the Twins stadium and the Gopher stadium passed. They spent almost $800 million on those two projects, and they couldn't find $28 million for an expansion of the DECC in Duluth, and I'm gravely disappointed."
But Gov. Pawlenty's press secretary Brian McClung says it was the governor, not the Democrats who brought the proposal to the Legislature in the first place.
"Gov. Pawlenty offered $34 million in his bonding recommendation for the DECC. Senate Democrats offered zero dollars," McClung says. "So if Senate Democrats are going to look for someone to blame they only need look in the mirror, when they try to figure out why the DECC did not receive funding in this legislative session."
And, McClung says, the governor offered repeatedly to fund the DECC with money left over from the tax conference committee, but that Democrats turned the offer down.
Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum also says it was Democrats that dropped the project.
"I think we should have done the DECC," Sviggum says. "I don't know how much more Republicans can do than offer it nine different times, fully fund it two times, and then in the global offer in the end to offer it again with cash out of the tax bill."
The DECC expansion may be unfunded for now, but the project's not dead, just getting more expensive, according to Dan Russell, the DECC's executive director.
"Obviously the cost of the project (is) just going to go up, so that's going to be a problem," he says. "So, you know, it's just time to start the process again. And we will be back. And we will be successful. It's not a matter of whether there's going to be a new facility to replace an aging 40-year-old-plus arena, it's just a matter of when."
Russell thinks the groundwork done this year will pay off in the future, possibly with the next bonding bill in two more years.
"I think that we really had a strong effort down there. I think we provided a lot of great information. People certainly know about the project. And to be honest with you, nobody, during the whole legislative session, ever questioned the need for the project."
Russell wouldn't lay the blame with the governor, or anyone else. Instead, he says, he needs to focus on making the expansion happen when it comes up again in two years - or, he says, sooner.
- All Things Considered, 05/22/2006, 5:15 p.m.