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Trial balloon for Vikings’ stadium hits turbulence

The first Vikings’ stadium trial balloon was floated across the Minnesota Legislature late Monday afternoon. Not surprisingly, Minnesota legislators took turns firing away at it.

The first Vikings’ stadium trial balloon was floated across the Minnesota Legislature late Monday afternoon.

Not surprisingly, Minnesota legislators took turns firing away at it.

There was this from Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis: “Any proposal that calls for 2/3 public investment is a non-starter.”

And this from Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada: “Do you understand the pain that we’re dealing with?”

And this from Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-Lindstrom: “The North Branch school district is the lowest funded in the state. They share principals between schools. They’ve cut to the bone and now they’re cutting to the marrow. They’re considering cutting sports at middle schools to save $60,000 to $85,000….Here’s the full scope of the deficit we’re dealing with. We could be losing Friday Night Lights and homecoming weekends….Business as usual doesn’t cut it anymore.”

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Boom, boom, boom.

And, as mentioned, this was just a trial balloon.

Representatives of the Minnesota Vikings weren’t even in the room when the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission approached the House Governmental Operations Committee for a “conversation” about “Metrodome Next”  Monday.

Part of the job of the Stadium Commission, its executive director, Bill Lester, explained to the committee, is to preserve professional sports in Minnesota. Lester laid it on the line: Without the Vikings, the Metrodome cannot exist, without a new stadium, the Vikings will leave, presumably after the 2011 season when their lease expires at the Dome.

‘This too will pass’

Both Lester and Roy Terwilliger, a former Republican legislator who now is the chairman of the stadium commission, said the commission was NOT coming to the Legislature with any sort of a bill. It was NOT speaking on behalf of the Vikings.

But they also said they were asking legislators to look past the current miserable state of the economy.

“This too will pass,” said Lester of the economic meltdown that has helped create a massive hole in Minnesota’s budget.

“We understand the budget constraints of all the states,” Terwilliger said to the legislative committee. “However, as we’re all dealing with these problems [the awful economy] other things are occurring, too. We need to be one of the many things you have to be aware of.”

In their vision – which presumably is shared by the Vikings – a new domed stadium would rise on the land where the Metrodome now sits. The Metrodome can’t be remodeled to meet the needs of a contemporary NFL team. And legislators shouldn’t hold out the hope that private money can be found to build a new stadium as has happened in a couple of places.

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Most members of the committee looked unimpressed. But Lester and Terwilliger had at least one supporter in the hearing room. There was a skinny white guy wearing an Adrian Peterson jersey standing by himself. He’d tried to come into the room with a sign that read, “Save The Vikings, Say Yes to the Stadium.” But No. 28 was told he couldn’t bring the sign into the hearing.

So he stood, alone, watching, listening and probably not feeling very good about what he was hearing.

There were, of course, other less conspicuous supporters in the room as well. There were a couple of labor union people in the room, understanding that this dance has just begun.

Lester and Terwilliger tried to buttress their point that a dome Vikings’ stadium can be justified even in these hard times.  A consulting firm, Convention, Sports & Leisure (CSL), had a report filled with a dazzling array of numbers showing what the state would get back with a new stadium.

The CSL report showed that just the construction of stadium would create 13,400 jobs, 8,000 of those would be jobs for people in construction trades. Wages and salaries from construction-related jobs would amount to $577 million. The direct spending of $734 million on construction would create a $1.35 billion ripple through the state’s economy and the taxes generated would amount to $33.1 million.

And the stadium would continue to produce 3,400 jobs after it was built, the CSL report said.  The economic activity created by the Vikings would create $32 million annually in taxes.

Dubious lawmakers

Legislators looked very dubious as these numbers were being tossed around.

At one point Kalin broke in and said that if more than $950 million (roughly the cost of the new stadium) was given to the energy committee he serves on, it surely could produce more than 13,400 jobs.

Of course, ultimately, when a stadium bill does come to the Legislature – and surely sometime between now and the end of the session a bill will emerge – it won’t be about whether a stadium can pay for itself.

Minnesota already has that. The Metrodome has been self sustaining since the 1990s when the sports commission sold the old Met Center land and used the proceeds to pay off outstanding bonds. In fact, no one is predicting that a fancy new stadium will be able to sustain itself in the way that the $55 million Metrodome has.

“I don’t want to go out and tell the High School League that we’re going to double what we charge them now,” said Lester. “That would destroy the purpose.”

In Lester’s view, you see, the new stadium should be like the Dome, a playground for all. It should be as constantly busy as the Metrdome has been, which over 300 days a year has events ranging from small college baseball games to high school soccer games to tractor pulls.

So again, why not keep the humble Metrodome, with its $15 million in reserves?

Without the Vikings – and the $7 million they pay to use the Dome – the Dome cannot exist, Lester  repeatedly said.

The Vikings aren’t the only organization saying that the Dome has outlived its usefulness.

“We’re competing with the latest and the greatest everywhere else in the country,” Lester said. “We made an effort to bring the Final Four [men’s college basketball championship] here again. We were not in the mix because other cities have better venues. If we want to remain in the mix for those sorts of events….”

One committee member, Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, seemed more empathetic than most to what Lester was saying.

“I try to point out to people that this isn’t about the Vikings,” said Lanning. “It’s easy to say we’re not going to spend money, but it can’t stop there. We have a responsibility to think this through. We can’t just walk away from an asset. We just can’t.”

Lester and Terwilliger both made constant references to social needs when weighed against a football stadium.

“There’s no comparison between what we’re talking about and the need for North Branch to have textbooks,” said Lester.

Said Terwilliger: “We recognize there are needs out there. We have to find a way that doesn’t take books from schools.”

Most of the legislators on the governmental operations committee looked very skeptical.

“So how’d that go?” Lester was asked at the end of the “conversation.”

“I told Roy [Terwilliger] that maybe we’d better stop by Home Depot and buy shovels and get to work ourselves,” said Lester.

Doug Grow covers state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.