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Too good to be true?
By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio
January 31, 2002
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Donald Watkins, the Alabama businessman who says he wants to buy the Minnesota Twins, paints a picture almost too good to be true. If he buys the team, he says he will not hold fans hostage by threatening to move the Twins. And he says wants to build the Twins a new stadium without asking taxpayers to help foot the bill.

Although always political active, Watkins held elected office only once. He served a four-year term on the Montgomery City Council, ending in 1983 before turning his attention to the city of Birmingham and its powerful Mayor Richard Arrington. Watkins served as Arrington's special legal counsel for nearly 15 years, and made millions.

One oft-repeated estimate puts Donald Watkins worth at $1.4 billion. Watkins won't confirm that figure. He only insists he has the hundreds of millions necessary to buy the Minnesota Twins and, perhaps more important given public sentiment, pay for a new revenue-producing ballpark without public assistance.

Watkins would become the first black owner in Major League Baseball. He would finance the ballpark in part through an adjacent world class sports museum, along with the usual naming rights, luxury seats and clubs , getting help with the initial investment from business associates all over the world.

"I'm not in favor of using tax dollars to build sports facilities. Let the entrepreneur who can think outside of the box develop the revenue streams sufficient to service the debt and if those revenue streams fall short there are ways of back stopping that without reaching into your pocket as a taxpayer," says Watkins

Watkins made those comments on MPR in December. He has since largely pulled back from the media, lately citing a confidentiality agreement with Twins owner Carl Pohlad while they negotiate.

Watkins declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this report. His office staff was unable to provide a biography chronicling his career and instead recommended a Web site called Voter News Network as a source for information.

"If Alabama State is a barometer, then yes you'd better be skeptical. "

- Joe Reed, a 30-year Alabama democratic power broker

Watkins launched VNN last spring, primarily, according to his first editorial, to organize a block of politically independent African American voters in Alabama.

He has used VNN to critique Alabama and national politics. Most of VNN's articles are written by family members and political associates. Much of the material criticizes well-known Alabama Democrats, from the governor on down.

"There is certainly some who would see a bit of sour grapes on the part of Donald Watkins because it is a fact that he did get his start in the Democratic Party and, of course, it was because of his affiliation with powerful democratic leaders that he became very wealthy," says Auburn University adjunct political science professor D' Linell Finley, a longtime observer of Alabama politics.

The son of a politically powerful Alabama State University president, Watkins was educated in the law. In the 1970s he devoted his energy to several high-profile civil rights cases.

Although always political active, Watkins held elected office only once. He served a four-year term on the Montgomery City Council, ending in 1983 before turning his attention to the city of Birmingham and its powerful Mayor Richard Arrington. Watkins served as Arrington's special legal counsel for nearly 15 years.

A consultant for Atlanta businessman Donald Watkins met on Jan. 30 with officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Richard Arrington said he was in Minnesota to lay the groundwork for Watkins' own trip to the state next month. Listen to his comments.

"He's a very talented attorney and businessman," says Arrington. He said Watkins' talent commanded handsome payments from the city under his administration. "You know he probably netted, and this is a guess, some $12 to $15 million representing the city, but I think that's a minor part of his holdings."

Arrington says he has no idea what Watkins is worth, only that he can certainly afford the Twins.

Watkins recently told the Associated Press he accumulated most of his wealth through investments, primarily in the research and production of pollution reducing fuel additives. He is also founder and chairman of Alamerica Bank, a relatively small financial institution which opened two years ago in Birmingham.

His holdings include investments in check-cashing businesses and oil drilling operations.

Watkins' interest in Major League Baseball emerged last spring and centered on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was about the same time Watkins had a highly publicized falling out on the Alabama State University Board of Trustees.

He had been promoting the idea of bringing Division One football to the the historically black school, essentially a move to the big-leagues in the football-crazed Gulf Coast. There would be a new privately financed stadium with a museum recognizing black athletes. It would cost nearly $100 million. Watkins would help bring in the money, reportedly tapping business associates, some in other countries.

But the ASU dream never took root, in no small part because of criticism from fellow board member Joe Reed, a 30-year Alabama democratic power broker who reportedly labeled the economics of Watkins' plan "voodoo financing."

"Nothing ever happened. I thought it was a hoax and a joke from day one, but I was right," Reed said.

Watkins resigned from the ASU board last May, throwing in the towel on the big-time football idea. But much of what he had pushed for in Alabama sounds now like a scaled-down version of what he's proposing for the Twins.

Reed doubts Watkins has the wherewithal to pull off the Twins deal. "If Alabama State is a barometer, then yes you'd better be skeptical. I think all of us are wasting time because I don't think it's going to happen. If I told you tomorrow I was going to be premier of Russia, I doubt you would come down to Montgomery, Alabama and do an interview on the future black premier of Russia," he said.

Skepticism is understandable, according to Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist who's written extensively on the economics of professional sports. "I don't want to condemn him or dismiss him for what he's saying. I just think some caution about his promises and his vision is in order," he said.

Zimbalist says it would be hard for Watkins' plan to work even in a much larger market than the Twin Cities, especially in a time of economic trouble.

"This is a very tall order and I would suspect that as we get down to the nitty gritty we might see some modifications in the plan where he's looking for various kinds of public support," according to Zimbalist.

But Watkins' ally Arrington, in the Twin Cities scouting potential stadium locations and meeting with political leaders, including the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, says Watkins will not stray from his pledge.

"Mr. Watkins has not been one in his business ventures to go to the public trough a great deal, but whatever site he ends up, he's going to need to have a good relationship with the city and cities in the area, particularly the Twin Cities and that sort," he said.

Even Watkins critics acknowledge, he's a hard worker who relentlessly pursues his goals.

Supporters warn not to underestimate him. High school principal and ASU trustee Maxine Coley says the Alabama businessman does not operate under hidden agendas.

"He's just... Down South we would say just an oversized - an overgrown - young boy that sees what he can do and put his energies and his efforts there and the people in Minnesota will love him to death," she said.

Watkins has met with Pohlad once already, and is expected to meet again with the Twins owner in the next few weeks.

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