I’m not normally one to say, “I told you so.”
But three years ago, when New Jersey shopping mall developer Zygi Wilf purchased the Vikings and made what was, in those days, an obligatory pilgrimage to the Star Tribune editorial board where I was, in those days, the writer who framed the paper’s opinion on stadium issues, and when Lester Bagley, the team’s capable liaison to all things Minnesotan, leaned over and quietly asked what I thought about the prospects for a new pro football stadium, I whispered to him one word:
Now, after a misadventure in Anoka County and a deadpan response to the idea of a new billion-dollar stadium on the Metrodome site, comes the remodel scenario.
On Monday, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, owners and operators of the Dome, heard presentations from five architectural firms with ideas on how to reconstruct the aging sports venue. One firm will be selected, probably this fall, to move forward with a complete redesign.
In rough terms, here’s the architectural challenge: The field level and lower bowl are fine and, presumably, could be reused. The locker rooms and other underground features must be expanded, however, and street-level concourses must be widened. The bigger job starts just above street level. What is now the Dome’s upper deck must be converted into several layers of clubs and suites, the kinds of amenities lacking in the current structure. Then, on top of that, a totally new third deck must be added, along with a roof, preferably a retractable one.
That’s a big-time remodeling job; a little like pushing out your 1950s rambler to add a family room and a double garage, then popping up the attic for a new master suite. Only a stadium is a lot bigger and uses tons and tons of steel at prices that are going through the roof (no pun intended). Total dollar costs will be measured not in tens of thousands but hundreds of millions.
By next year, amid possible legislative discussions, the Metrodome’s managers want to know more precisely the savings that might be found in a remodeling of this fashion compared to knocking down the whole thing and starting over.
Dealing with our ‘hotdish mentality’
“A hotdish mentality” is how the commission’s chairman Roy Terwilliger describes the approach. Terwilliger is a South Dakota native, a community banker and a former Republican legislator. So, he knows well the Midwestern mood when it comes to spending money: If leftovers can be salvaged in a casserole, so much the better.
As Garrison Keillor might say, we are a thrifty people not given to excess. So, updating the Dome sounds a lot better to the Minnesota ear than a whole new project.
Start with the land. The sports commission already owns the site. It’s a better site than it was when the Metrodome opened in 1982. The state’s two busiest freeways still crisscross nearby. But now major riverfront development has crept closer and major transit investments have been added in the form of two light rail lines and a commuter rail connection. Those figure to be important as energy sources change in the coming decades.
There’s also an advantage to the still-empty blocks that immediately surround the Dome. In the right hands, those blocks would be redeveloped and, if the state allows, future tax revenue from those properties might be used to help finance the stadium project.
The Metrodome has been a fabulous deal for Minnesota. It was built on the cheap — $33 million in public money from Minneapolis and a metro liquor tax. The state invested nothing in its original construction. But the Dome has returned billions to Minnesota’s economy from football, baseball and other special events, notably a Super Bowl, a Final Four and several NCAA regional basketball tournaments. In tax receipts alone, the state has collected more than $234 million from sports events at the Dome (10 times what Minneapolis has captured), all from an original investment of zero.
A ticking clock and the public’s pocketbook
But now the Dome’s days are clearly numbered. The University of Minnesota’s football team opens its last season under the Teflon sky next week. The Twins depart to their new outdoor park after next year. The Vikings’ lease expires after the 2011 season. With the lowest stadium-generated revenues in the NFL, the team expects to play elsewhere starting in 2012. The question is, where? An extensive Dome remodeling, if approved, would take at least two years, so the clock is ticking.
Whether the governor and Legislature have an appetite for keeping the Vikings is the main political question. Among local governments, only Hennepin County could afford to help finance an NFL stadium update likely to cost more than $500 million. The county is tapped out on the Twins deal. That leaves the state, the Vikings and the sports commission to reach an agreement. It may not happen.
If not Minneapolis, Los Angeles looks like an attractive option. The nation’s second largest market has no NFL team and would seem a more likely venue for a privately financed stadium for the Vikings.
Last April, developer Edward Roski, part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings announced plans to build a stadium in the San Gabriel Valley, 25 miles east of downtown. No public money would be needed. The lavish structure would cost $800 million, a third less than it would otherwise cost because a big portion would be built into a hillside. New adjacent development would help finance the stadium.
The Vikings, Chargers and Saints are the most likely tenants, although Hurricane Katrina has made it politically impossible to move the Saints.
Keep in mind that Los Angeles has failed many times to attract a team and/or build a stadium since both the Rams and Raiders departed 14 years ago. It’s a chicken-and-egg question. No one will move a team to Los Angeles without a stadium and no one will build a stadium without a team. That makes Roski’s task monumental: Buying the Vikings or Chargers for $700 million and privately financing an $800 million stadium.
The Vikings’ owners have made no threats about moving or selling. “We’re working together on this,” said Bill Lester, the Metrodome’s general manager, and a key player in the Dome’s proposed makeover. The goal is to reconfigure the stadium in ways that meet the NFL’s modern-day standards for the Vikings while retaining a capability to host other events — including the Super Bowl, Final Four, college and high school sports, concerts and trade shows. An open-air stadium for just 10 Vikings games a year makes no sense for downtown, while an updated Dome would bring much wider benefits to the region. “This is probably our last chance for a climate-controlled facility,” Lester said.
Although most NFL teams play in completely new stadiums, some play in extensively renovated venues, notably the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field and the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field.
Each of the five firms that presented to the sports commission this week has extensive stadium experience. They are HOK and 360 Architecture of Kansas City, Ellerbe Becket of Minneapolis, Aedas of Los Angeles and HKS of Dallas.