Wednesday, May 24, 2006

COLUMN -- Twins didn't win war of ideas; citizens lost to a government siege

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:25 AM |  

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Benjamin Franklin said it's like "having our cake and eating it, too."

Well, OK, he didn't, really. But he could have. Franklin was a very smart man and well ahead of his time. It's not too farfetched to imagine that he might have had something to say about the Twins stadium legislation.

As evidence, I offer the 100th episode of "South Park," "I'm A Little Bit Country," which takes "South Park" kid Cartman back to Revolutionary times and the debate over whether the colonies should go to war with England.

The convention is at a stalemate until, with "South Park's" deft satire, Franklin observes that if the country goes to war but allows protests that don't actually prevent the war, then it looks like the country doesn't really want to go to war. "It's like having our cake and eating it too," he tells the convention.

If we might paraphrase the irony of Franklin in "South Park" and apply it to the stadium wars: When civic leaders are determined to create some sparkle in the community but pretend to debate the issue as if what is said makes a difference, then that sparkle really looks like a well-thought-out compromise solution to a complex problem.

It's like having our cake and eating it, too.

A stadium was always inevitable. Amid the celebration over the Twins, finally, after a decade of struggle, being on the verge of a new publicly funded ballpark, it would, indeed, be inappropriate to once again rehash all of the economic and political arguments against the sparkle and spirit of a publicly funded ballpark. Instead, we hear "persistence," "leadership" and "hard work" describing the Twins' epic struggle to overcome public resistance to a tax-funded stadium. That's a nice storyline, but public resistance never was much eroded.

In 1997, the year "South Park" made its debut, a newspaper poll found that 69 percent opposed that year's Twins stadium funding proposal. Almost a decade later, the most recent Minnesota Poll taken before the final stadium vote found that 68 percent opposed using public money to finance the Twins ballpark. So what changed? Very little, actually.

When the governing elite want something, it might be delayed by unified opposition, but grass-roots movements are always burdened by divided energies. Opposing the resources of the Minnesota Twins, Hennepin County commissioners and state legislators with legacies on the line are individuals who also have day jobs and nightly worries other than turf versus sod.

The stadium war was not won on the battlefield of ideas and policy; it was a successful siege. Government always wins in a war of attrition. It is inevitable.

History is written by the winners. The Twins stadium is being called a "victory," which it is for those who believe the vitality of a community lies in the goodies government can deliver rather than in the industry of its citizens. It's a defeat for those who create the wealth used to build the stadium.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's National Great River Park, turning St. Paul into "one of the most beautiful cities in the nation," and creating a "more urban, more natural, more connected environment." I wrote that the mayor might be using his mayoral power to impose a vision on the community. Before the column even appeared the mayor confirmed it.

"We're no longer just going to allow anyone to make an independent judgment about what should happen in the city of St. Paul," the Pioneer Press quotes him as saying. "There has to be a community vision developed, and then we will proceed based on that vision."

Given the Twins success, is there any doubt that his vision, eventually, will come to pass?

Along with the Twins stadium, the Legislature passed a $1 billion bonding bill that completes state funding for the Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. Is there any doubt it's going to happen? Or that light rail along the Central Corridor is a done deal? Or that a plethora of "vibrant mixed-use developments" will replace organic neighborhoods?

Resistance may be futile, but it is the only option for people of integrity. For them, the Twins stadium legislation is neither a victory nor a compromise; it is a defeat. Perhaps communities, like individuals, can consume only so much cake before they start to feel sick. We can only hope.