Did St. Paul lowball the Lowertown ballpark plan?

Rendering of proposed Lowertown Ballpark in St. Paul (City of St. Paul)

St. Paul got a nasty surprise when it started digging up the site in earnest for the new Lowertown ballpark: an unseen $6 million of pollution lying underground on the Diamond Products site.

Or was it a surprise?

Critics of the stadium point out an interesting artifact dating back to the application by the city for state aid for what was then a $50-something million project.

An estimate in March from the city of St. Paul put the construction cost for the stadium alone at $28 million. A few months later, the construction cost was revised downward to $22.4 million — just as the state was evaluating the project for a grant from the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

That’s a drop of $5.56 million, or just about exactly how much the price of the project rose, after the city got $25 million in state funding for the project last September.

So, did the city lowball the price tag to win state aid, then restore the true cost once it had state money in hand?

No, say St. Paul officials.

“Had we known the total project costs were going to be $63 million, we would have asked for that,” says St. Paul Parks and Recreation spokesman Brad Meyer. He says the city didn’t deliberately underestimate anything.

There are some other facts to consider: The initial total cost of the project, back in March, was just $50.3 million. And even though the ballpark construction portion of that figure decreased, the total project cost actually rose between the two estimates, to $54 million. That was the basis of the city’s final ask from the state — a $27 million grant to pay for half the project.

And there’s nothing sinister about the construction estimate, Meyer says: “The ballpark construction cost has been a ‘design to’ target budget that has varied depending on other project costs (site work, property acquisition, etc.) As those costs increase, the ‘ballpark construction cost’ decreases (and visa versa) to maintain a consistent total project cost.”

Former DEED commissioner Mark Phillips, back in his old job as a Kraus Anderson executive, said in an interview he remembers the application process and says there was some pressure to lower costs on the St. Paul ballpark project. But he said it wasn’t  because there was a danger of the project not being funded. Phillips said DEED wanted to trim the St. Paul money and spread the available $47.5 million out to more projects.

And Phillips also says he thinks the surprise on the pollution problems was plausible.

“That’s a tough site. You can’t see through dirt,” Phillips says. “I’m in the construction business myself and our biggest fear is soil correction… What they found, it didn’t shock me at all.”

Here’s the nitty gritty on the estimates, albeit in grainy, fax-ish detail. The last document is a spreadsheet comparing the two estimates: