I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having buyer’s remorse big-time about the new Vikings stadium.
The state’s plans for paying off the bonds that would finance its $398 million share of the deal with taxes from electronic pull-tabs and e-bingo seemed dubious from the start.
My skepticism came straight from King Wilson, then executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, whose members would operate the games. At the time, the Department of Revenue forecast that the state would reap $62.5 million a year in taxes from the adoption of electronic pull-tabs and online bingo.
Wilson wasn’t so sure.
He gave as an example Apple Valley American Legion Post 1776. At its one clubhouse, it would be allowed 12 electronic pull-tab games and bingo machines. Revenue from pull-tabs has been estimated to produce $225 a day, with bingo bringing in $90.
“If you multiply each of those by 12 machines and 365 days a year, you get $1.4 million,” said Wilson. The Department of Revenue, however, said that Apple Valley’s revenues would rise by nearly $6 million.
As the legislation became final, I talked to Wilson again. Wasn’t he still worried that the revenues would be insufficient? His response boiled down to “whatever.” His group wanted the state to legalize electronic gambling; if it didn’t generate enough dough to repay the stadium bonds, well, that was not his problem. And it’s definitely no longer his; he’s since retired to Hawaii.
Now, of course, we are hearing that instead of producing the projected $35 million in tax revenues last year, the electronic games came in with about 5 percent of that. Oops.
It’s conceivable that in the next couple of years, electronic gaming could pick up speed — and revenues, and we’ll be out of the woods. But maybe it won’t.
The legislation enabling the stadium has provisions for so-called blink-on fees (surcharges on box seats, and so on) that would come into play if gaming revenues are inadequate, but they would only produce about $10 million a year. And, if the budget has to be scaled back, then we’ll be settling for a fixed roof instead of a retractable one, for mini- instead of Jumbotrons, and other frugalities that will turn the People’s Stadium into a second-class venue.
The stadium’s financial infrastructure isn’t the only worry that keeps me up at night, however. A cautionary tale of another in-town stadium also may have some lessons.
Back in 1985, when I worked for Money magazine, my editor decided to devote an entire issue to the year 2000. (Why? Don’t ask. Editors often come up with odd ideas.) I was dispatched to St. Petersburg, Fla., whose demographics (lots of old people) would supposedly match what the nation’s population would look like at the turn of the new century. What we expected to find were generational wars over school funding, with elderly people grousing about paying high taxes, and the like.
Instead, all those crotchety old folks voted uncomplainingly for one school bond issue after another. The big controversy in town was whether to build a Major League Baseball field even though St. Pete had no Major League Baseball team.
Town boosters were convinced that the best way to get a team was to build their own stadium. So they tore down a low-income neighborhood and invested $130 million in a dome now known as Tropicana Field.
The city completed construction in 1990 but didn’t get a team — the Tampa Bay Rays — until 1998. To lure them, the city invested another $70 million in renovations — and added another $35 million in fixes in 2006. Even with all that, the stadium is nothing special — the standard circular arena sitting in a giant parking lot. Its only distinction is a “touch tank” filled with cownose rays taken from Tampa Bay waters.
These days, the city has its eyeballs on the 85-acre tract. Belatedly, civic boosters now realize that the land, which sits near St. Pete’s waterfront and downtown, might be better used for residences, stores and offices. Instead of debts on the stadium, the city could pocket an estimated $7.5 million a year extra in property taxes.
Among the most full-throated promoters of the redevelopment proposal are — you guessed it — the Tampa Bay Rays, who want the city to build them a fancier stadium elsewhere. The Tampa Bay Times quoted the team’s vice president, Michael Kalt, to the effect that “the city is sitting on an enormous piece of land in a rapidly growing downtown that is, frankly, lying fallow.”
The lessons for us are twofold:
First, perhaps a stadium isn’t the best use for land downtown. Yes, I know all the roads and trains lead there, but there’s no reason to think that a stadium will stimulate the construction of tax-paying enterprises around it — especially when it’s only in use for maybe 10 days a season.
Second, major league teams never give up in their quest to have the public foot the bill for ever-more expensive palaces. With these teams, you’re never done.
Feeding my buyer’s remorse is yet another worry: that we are paying too much.
Atlanta recently completed a deal to build a new stadium for the Falcons. The cost: about $1 billion. The public, however, is paying a mere $200 million, while the rest of the money is coming from private sources. A cut of the city’s hospitality taxes will go to operating expenses.
If we’ve been chumps, I figured, there isn’t much we can do. After all, the state and the Vikings have a contract, right? And if we tried to squirm out of it, the lawsuits would never end.
But, as it turns out, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority says there is no contract. Nor is there even a written agreement. A spokesman for the Governor’s Office says: “The only written agreement is the legislation that was signed by the governor — all the terms that were negotiated last year were subsumed into the law.”
Well, folks, guess what? Legislation can be repealed or changed.
State Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, a critic of the stadium deal, says that the Legislature would be likely to make some short-term fix to shore up revenues for the stadium’s construction — for example, the introduction of a new lottery game.
“Would I like to have the Vikings kick in another $200 million?” he asks. “You bet.”
But he adds, doing that would reopen the entire Vikings deal, and a lot of legislators don’t want to do that.
But maybe they should be thinking about it.