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Vikings stadium debate takes a decidedly new turn

Ellerbe Becket

It would be incorrect and hyperbolic to say the Vikings stadium debate was stood on its head this morning.

But, surely, it was turned on a swivel, and that 90-degree repositioning might — might — create a mild jump-start in a complex process that seems inexorably and painfully headed toward the end of the 2011 football season.

That's when the football team's lease expires at the Metrodome. And, don't look now, but the fall of 2011 is a mere four football seasons away.

$853 million retractable-roof stadium proposed
The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns and operates the 27-year-old Metrodome, unveiled a new, fascinating $853 million retractable-roofed concept today. (Let's gloss over the price for now.)

The new idea, created long ago by Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket but finally made public today, re-uses some of the Dome's foundation. The design would, literally and architecturally, turn the stadium's field around, reorienting the current north-south football field to an east-west configuration.  With a neat view of downtown over the west goalpost, to boot.

That would allow builders to, among other things, widen the Dome's cluttered concourses, add 8,000 club seats, increase suites from 99 to 150, improve the awful toilet situation (especially for women) and put a retractable roof on the edifice. In fact, in images displayed at the Commission meeting, when the roof is off, the reconstructed Dome's west wall would open while its roof would slide towards the east.

According to stadium consultant CSL, the "reconstruction" would generate $32 million in new premium seating, signage, naming rights and ticket revenues over the current Metrodome revenue streams. (It would boost average ticket prices to about $72, CSL's respected Craig Skiem estimates, too.)

Time out.

There is a very long way to go. This proposal is just that — a proposal — but much less breathless than a more expensive one made 18 months ago by a design group called ROMA with the architectural firm HOK. That one would have built on the Dome sit, but completely demolish the current facility. It also promised massive and, perhaps, unnecessary development around the stadium.

It had a price tag of $954 million or $100 million more than the new one.

Fewers bells-and-whistles, more value

Today's presentation offered fewer bells-and-whistles and more dollars-and-cents. And that's good. Because, when push comes to tackle, this Viking debate will be reduced to cost.

Clearly, there will be talk about the value of an NFL franchise to a community and the power of the team. Another Sports Facilities Commission document released today shows that about 1 million Minnesotans every Sunday either watch on TV or listen on radio to Vikings games. That's a hefty figure if you consider this: What other statewide event brings 1 million together for three hours once a week?

This sketch shows the proposed stadium with the roof open.
Ellerbe Becket
This sketch shows the proposed stadium with the roof open.

But, still, it will be about the deal, about which public entity will get involved — yes, there will be a call for public financing — and then, of course, how much owner Zygi Wilf and his partners will invest.

The Twins' ballpark financing model of partnering with Hennepin County won't work. Another local sales tax increase would create riots along Nicollet Mall. The concept of  "a local partner," as Gov. Tim Pawlenty likes to call it, is off-base. If any government account benefits from pro sports, it is the state's (via income and sales taxes) and it is the state — of any government entity — that will have to come to the table on this massive project.

Or not.

For their part, the Vikings representatives at the meeting today were subdued, but clearly pleased with some movement, any movement. Indeed, this Ellerbe plan was being polished and proof-read about a year ago. There was lots of excitement about it then.

But, on August 1, the I-35 bridge collapsed nary a mile from the Dome, and talking about stadium infrastructure instead of bridges was not in the cards.

Vikings stadium VP Lester Bagley was particularly cautious when asked about the projections by Skiem, of the Twin Cities-based CSL consultants, that an additional $32 million per year will roll into team coffers at a new stadium.

That piece he said — sounding like a Star Tribune editorial — "requires further study." Actually, the entire pile of documents released today requires deep study by political leaders, legislative staffers and stadium boosters and critics.

But Bagley is correct on one front: "We need to get this resolved sooner, rather than later, or this franchise is going to be in jeopardy."

I'm not exactly sure what "jeopardy" means, and I don't see this team moving in 2012. Remember, within one minute of owning the team three years ago, Wilf said he'd never move the Vikings. Still, with the changing dynamics of NFL economics and the possibility of a labor dispute with the players, local revenues are becoming increasingly critical. (They've been important forever, but with the New York teams and the Dallas Cowboys coming on line with new facilities, the rich are gonna get richer before the Vikings do.) The Vikings trail just about every other franchise in the league when it comes to stadium-generated revenues.

New stadium back in play as political issue

With the economy in a tailspin, with oil prices spurting through the Dome's roof and banks failing with working people's cash, the last thing Minnesotans will want to address any time soon is an $853 million Vikings stadium or any public gift to Mr. Wilf.

But it's out there, folks. The issue isn't going away, and it's almost a miracle that a new proposal is cheaper than an old one. Construction costs since this Vikings debate started nearly a decade ago have about doubled. This cost reduction in the new Ellerbe design was one of the goals of some commissioners, most notably its longtime finance chairman, Paul Thatcher.

Today, Thatcher revealed a conversation he had with MSFC chairman Roy Terwilliger, the former Republican state senator from Edina.

This sketch shows the proposed stadium with roof closed.
Ellerbe Becket
This sketch shows the proposed stadium with roof closed.

When the two of them first saw the Ellerbe design a year ago, Thatcher said he told Terwilliger, "Mr. Chairman, that looks pretty Republican to me," meaning the refurbishing of some of the Dome's structure and its relatively reduced cost.

Thatcher said Terwilliger replied, "It's not only very Minnesotan, it's even Lutheran.''

Terwilliger has even taken to calling this proposal "Hotdish" because of its reusable components.

Ya know, re-use what ya got, Lena.

Maybe that'll play well at the Legislature.

Another key issue to address: under this proposal, the Vikings would have to play elsewhere, probably at the new University of Minnesota stadium, for two seasons. Capacity would be shrunk. Revenues would be reduced. What happens on that front?

Requests for proposals to architectural and construction firms were approved today. The commission is seeking LEED certification.

The RFP reads: "The Commission in consultation with the Minnesota Vikings ... is undertaking preliminary work in regards to this project in anticipation of providing the Minnesota Legislature at its 2009 session with detailed information and recommendations."

The Dome's meeting room today was filled with lobbyists, consultants and architects.

The Vikings stadium game is back on.

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Comments (7)

Oh, and while the 1 million watchers/listeners is impressive, not only is it just for 3 hours a week, but it's also limited to about four months of the year.

I think public ownership of sports teams is a great idea, but sadly it is prohibited by the NFL (and likewise prohibited or discouraged by the other pro leagues, I believe). Green Bay's public ownership structure was grandfathered in, and it's the only one of its kind in American pro sports. The idea would also be near-impossible to implement now, as the cost of a franchise in the major leagues is inflated by the presence of free facilities. The best bet would be a private owner donating a club to a municipality, if the league ever allows it (I know MLB forbid this with the San Diego Padres in the 1980's).

Likewise, public shareholder financing of a stadium would also probably fail without public ownership of the team. Why buy a bond with zero return to benefit someone else's business, particularly when general tax dollars are already universally used for such a purpose? "Personal seat licenses" and other ticket costs are similar to public shares, although the buyer gets something tangible in return, and even those things don't raise anywhere near the amount needed to significantly finance a new facility (and unfortunately, they usually go towards the team's portion of the bill anyway).

One million listeners is a lot but it is reassuring to know that so many Minnesotans might have something else to do. I count 5 million minus 1 million equals 4 million, or 80% of the state's population. Thank you for the excellent story.

What makes anyone think that the final cost will be the proposed cost? When's the last time a large construction project has been on time and on budget? Once they get underway there won't be any turning back, so they just need to get the work started and they're home free.

I hope they get a new stadium, because I think it will help the downtown area, but it will just serve to price out more people, making going to a vikings game something that rich people get to do.

Two words: Good luck.

I wish the Vikings were smart enough to learn from more successful enterprises. I have to point to hated rivals to show what I mean. First the Dallas Cowboys placed their new stadium BETWEEN two large population areas, drawing people from both.....the Vikings focus on one population center. There are large, sparcely populated ares that would place a new stadium geographically closer to more population. Second, the Green Bay Packers wanted some stadium improvements so they sold shares of the team to the public for financing. Apparently, very successfully. While the Packer shares do not pay dividends, a Vikings stadium bond might provide some financing for a new stadium and give fans a solid feeling that the Vikings are our team.

Thanks for the update.

I still don't see how a retractable roof is necessary -- there will be two brand-new open-air stadiums within two miles of the Dome. Virtually all of the extra events that it is argued this stadium would bring in (conventions, NCAA basketball, a Super Bowl, etc.) would want to be indoors anyway. The retractable roof cost alone was $200 million in the previous plan, and this new plan would seem a lot more palatable with a fixed roof at $653 million.

Plus, with a fixed roof, there is little need to re-orient the playing field for skyline views. And most of the named benefits of this plan could be achieved with a more modest Dome renovation. Back in 2001, when a completely new stadium cost was estimated at $500 million, a fairly complete Dome renovation was estimated at about $250 million, or half the new cost. That included expanded concourses, and raising the roof to build a new layer of club seats and luxury boxes. (I think that may have involved no roof, but the extra cost of materials for a fixed roof might be balanced out by money saved in weather and drainage system costs.)

Given what we know about the retractable roof cost, I would not be surprised if such a plan still came in at about 50% the proposed new construction cost, around $425 million now. That would be reasonably close to the Twins and Gophers stadium costs, and it could sneak through the legislature within a few years with financial help from the Vikings and the NFL. Otherwise, it seems the primary argument for new construction is the Vikings' desire for that "new car smell," but I just can't see any other entity willing to pony up $600+ million to help the Vikings achieve that.