I sat down over lunch one day last week with Roy Terwilliger, chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. A banker from Edina, Terwilliger was a leading Republican moderate in the state Senate from 1992 to 2003 before accepting Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s offer to chair the sports commission. The commission operates the Metrodome and, as landlord to the Minnesota Vikings, figures to play an important role in finding the team a new home.
Terwilliger is surprisingly optimistic about the prospects for a new stadium, although he sees the issue as less about keeping the Vikings than about leveraging all of the other benefits that hosting an NFL team brings: NCAA basketball tournaments, big concerts and trade shows, and a range of high school sports and other community events.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
MinnPost: Will the Legislature and new governor confront the Vikings’ stadium issue this session, and what will the outcome be?
Roy Terwilliger: I think they will tackle the issue. The politics have changed to the point that people expect this to occur. I think there will be conditions to the debate, however. There will have to be a solution to the budget problem, and there must be certainty that health care for the elderly or that school kids aren’t caught in a dilemma before they get to a stadium solution. But I think that each of the three possibilities for governor is committed to lead on the issue and that a plan will emerge. Whether it passes is another question. The fact that the [Vikings’ lease] expires after next season adds some urgency that people now understand.
MP: What are the odds of a bill passing?
RT: I think they’re quite good. This year, as opposed to last year, there have been a lot of quiet conversations to lay the groundwork for a solution.
MP: Will the Vikings work with the Commission or will the team go on a separate track, given the rocky relationship between the team and commission in recent months?
RT: I think they’ll work with us. They have been studying some other sites in [the northern suburbs], possibly Brookdale, or the 610/169 area where Target was going to build a campus, or maybe the Twin Cities arsenal site in Arden Hills, but I think rebuilding on the Metrodome site will emerge as the best alternative. The downside is having to play at the Gophers stadium for two seasons, but the long-term advantages, with all of the built-in infrastructure and all of the synergy with downtown, makes the Metrodome site the most efficient option going forward. It has 20 acres of land already owned by the public. And it’s at the intersection of two major freeways and two light rail lines.
MP: Does the overwhelming initial success of Target Field provide any lessons for the Vikings?
RT: I think it absolutely does. On the political side, people come away with extremely favorable impressions of the new ballpark and the Gophers stadium, too. And so they understand the benefits better than they did. On the financial side, I think it’s clear that the Twins bill succeeded because they kept it simple. Everybody knew where the money was going to come from [the team and a 0.15 percent sales tax increase in Hennepin County]. They also had solid cost estimates that didn’t change. You could count on their numbers and on their word. They had the same people working on the issue year after year. That consistency was important.
MP: How does the possibility of a labor dispute next year between NFL owners and players affect your optimism?
RT: It would be terrible, and a huge miscalculation on the part of the players and owners because, coming out of a recession like this, there would be lots of consternation again about billionaire owners and millionaire players. That would be very damaging to our efforts.
MP: Are you worried that the Wilf family, with no deep roots in the community, might not be so patient as the Pohlads were and might be more prone to moving or selling the team?
RT: I don’t know. I think people may suspect that the Vikings won’t have as much staying power and that might help them understand the urgency.
MP: For almost 20 years now we’ve been arguing about whether professional sports are important to the community, both from an economic and cultural standpoint. Do we need to continue that, or are we over it?
RT: I look at the issue a bit differently. I think it’s important to keep the Vikings here not just because of the team’s popularity but because having the team as a tenant in a public facility like an updated Metrodome makes it possible to have all kinds of other activities that benefit the community [high school football tournaments, concerts, NCAA basketball tournaments and other big events]. The media like to focus on this project as just a Vikings stadium, but it’s more than that. The Vikings are immensely popular, don’t get me wrong. We’re the 12th- or 13th-largest market in the country, so out of 32 NFL teams, it’s important that we have a presence — that we’re not flyover country. I think it would be a mistake to turn our back on the NFL for all kinds of reasons.
MP: Is a privately financed NFL stadium possible in this market?
RT: I doubt it. The two contemporary examples of that are Foxboro [New England Patriots] and Fed Ex [Washington Redskins]. Going private is not how most of the other teams have gone. Even the new Dallas Cowboys stadium has a lot of public money in it. A few years ago, the Wilfs were looking at parcels of land around the Metrodome for housing and other development opportunities that could have been part of the package, but then the housing market went down and they backed away from that.
MP: The focus here has always been to get a local government as a sports team’s partner. With a price tag approaching $900 million, is there any local government large enough to handle this project?
RT: Hennepin County is probably the only one, but it has a lot on its plate. The seven-county metro is a possibility but I don’t know if the Met Council wants to jump into this. One idea that emerged from the focus groups was a very small statewide sales tax, say a tenth of 1 percent. That would do it, but a lot of legislators would want a referendum on that. I’m not so sure a referendum would fail.
MP: Having a lame duck administration in office at this point, does that hurt the project?
RT: Maybe. My term expires in January. There are three or four people who really understand financially how this could get done. It would be good to keep those people somehow together. As for the cost, I think it could come down. The first estimate was $954 million. Then we refined it down to $870 million. I think you could get it to $750 million by eliminating a few things like the VIP parking structure, and maybe making the roof permanent instead of retractable. If the Vikings paid 40 percent and you picked up some revenue from user fees, that might leave $400 million for the public to cover. That’s still $45 million to $50 million a year in debt service, but the Vikings’ income taxes would cover half of that. So we’re getting down to a number that’s still large but not quite as large as people think. It would be nice to find a way to do this with an ongoing source of revenue, as the Twins did, so that big debts don’t pile up. You read about some of these stadiums carrying huge debt loads years and years after they were built, and that’s not an attractive thing.