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Vikings stadium: How will Pawlenty’s decision affect the future of the state’s popular NFL franchise?

The merging of sports and politics was evident today when the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission met less than 20 hours after Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he won’t run for a third term.

If there is poetry in timing, then today’s Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission meeting was a compelling ode to the merging of sports and politics.

Think of the “The Odyssey” or “Paradise Lost.” For when it comes to professional sports stadiums, the journey is always the most politically charged part and the “cold Omaha” image sans teams is the tired-but-true fear factor.

Less than 20 hours after Gov. Tim Pawlenty — no stadium advocate he — announced he won’t run for a third term, the long- and much-maligned Sports Facilities Commission coincidentally gathered for a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the future of the aging and obsolete Metrodome and the impending deadline facing the agency and the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings’ “use agreement” — or lease — expires after the 2011 season. It takes three years to build a new stadium that’s sure to cost in the $1 billion range. For eight years, Pawlenty has ducked stadium issues deftly. A Twins ballpark and new University of Minnesota stadium were built under his watch, but, mostly, over his obstructions or inertia. A shared Vikings-Gophers stadium notion — a rational and socially responsible missed opportunity — crumbled under his watch.

Dome’s days are numbered
So here they sat, the relatively powerless stadium commissioners today, talking about how to keep the Dome afloat financially once the Twins vacate the premises after this baseball season and, come September, with the Gophers ready to play in their sparkling new TCF Bank Stadium a short walk away. Then, of course, there’s the catastrophic scenario: Can the Dome survive without the Vikings, too? (Short answer: No.)

There are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global recession, terrible unemployment, flu worries, collapsing auto giants and millions without health care. Agreed. Stipulated to.

But on autumn Sundays, the Vikings are a state-wide cultural activity for many and — on some Sundays — for most Minnesotans. The future of the Dome and the franchise is racing toward a deadline and, of course, how the matter is resolved will land on the governor’s and Legislature’s plate. It’s not easy. It’s not pleasant. But we’ve got a situation here, folks.

Will it be on tap next session in 2010? Or will it be a matter for the next governor in 2011 with the clock ticking for a Vikings threat to move and much of the leverage shifting to owner Zygi Wilf and his partners?

Exactly how Pawlenty’s political future and the circus of a gubernatorial campaign will affect our next mother-of-all stadium debates is unclear.

My assessment of stadium politics
Based on conversations with stadium commissioners, Vikings officials and some lobbyists, consider this a mixture of educated speculation and bold assertions …

• The Vikings — the state’s most popular team in the nation’s most powerful league — are guaranteed to be in Minnesota for just three more seasons. The team isn’t in the mood to extend its lease at the Dome. The 2009 Legislature and the governor had a ton of stuff to deal with, and the Vikings stadium matter barely got a glimpse.

• The Pawlenty announcement could cut two ways: one that’s somewhat good for the Vikings, and one that’s not so good. Methinks the answer is the latter.

His new status as a somewhat disengaged lame duck isn’t good for any urgent issue.

• For the sake of argument, let’s take the opposite view, that his announcement frees him up to take new positions now that he’s not running for re-election. A stretch, but let’s go with it for now.

After all, in another context, at his news conference Tuesday, he said that by not running, “We can be ultimately aggressive without having to worry about the consequences.”

But the stadium issue is tricky, based on the governor’s previous positions.

Although the team must come up with much more private money than it’s previously suggested, there will be a public funding/financing component to any Vikings stadium deal. There will be. And it will have to focus on state funding, not local subsidies.

Pawlenty has long posited the notion that there must be a “local partner” in any stadium deal; that’s the Twins’ Target Field finance model, with Hennepin County paying for the thing and the state walking away scot-free.

But unless something miraculous occurs, there is no local partner to help fund the Vikings stadium. Hennepin County can’t be expected to subsidize it. The city of Minneapolis alone shouldn’t be asked to take it on.

Any statewide or metro-wide finance plan for a new stadium would run counter to the governor’s long-held no-new-taxes position. (He looked the other way on the Twins deal because the County Board had to take the tough vote, not him.)

Tuesday, during his news conference, the governor made it clear the stadium matter was a bothersome fly buzzing around. He made a very dismissive comment about it when asked about the agenda for the 2010 session and his lessening of power.

He called the 2010 session “a kind of adjustment session,” with no major issues to tackle. Then, he added, “The usual suspects will dangle some shiny objects in front of [us] like a Vikings stadium …”

He didn’t say he liked shiny objects.

• Why would he dive in to the Vikings situation? What’s in it for him at this stage?

Well, because if he’s running for president in 2012, the team could be in a full-blown relocation mode or a last-ditch threat phase if the stadium issue isn’t settled by then. Maybe he’d take the blame, although a DFL-controlled Legislature could, too.

Pro football in Minnesota won’t exactly be a major campaign issue in the Pawlenty-Obama debates, but it would show a certain lack of engagement on Pawlenty’s part in a relatively important statewide asset.

• But this leads to the more likely scenario. He does nothing significant to help get a Vikings stadium built during his administration. And he takes no heat.

If anyone else wants to push the stadium idea in 2010, Pawlenty lets them.

But who will?

Many of the potential gubernatorial candidates of both parties are in the Legislature already. As with the Twins ballpark debate of the 1990s and early 2000s, the issue of Vikings stadium support or opposition will become a litmus test for gubernatorial candidates. Newspaper “Voter’s Guides” and anti-tax groups will seek superficial yes/no answers on: “Do you support public funding for a Vikings stadium?”

Candidates in knee-jerk fashion will check off, “No,” locking themselves in.

(Already, a citizens group called Taxpayers United For Rational Football Funding has been formed, and a couple of its members attended today’s meeting. The grass-roots opposition is already organizing.)

Apparently, Democratic legislative leaders already have decided that, without support from the governor, they won’t elevate the Vikings issue in 2010. They don’t want it to be a DFL-linked albatross.

Also, every legislator is up for re-election in 2010, and the composition of the Legislature will determine the critical issue of statewide legislative redistricting, which comes with the 2010 U.S. Census. Both parties want to gain control of the Legislature to dictate the ultimate gerrymandering.

Thus, it seems likely the Vikings debate moves into 2011 and into the hands of a new occupant of the Capitol’s corner office.

• Here’s the next trick: Whoever fills that seat may have been running on a platform opposing public funding for a Vikings stadium. How will the new governor adjust, tweak or flip-flop on his or her campaign position once in office?

Indeed, the best Wilf and company can hope for in the 2010 election cycle is that no potential governors paint themselves into any no-way/no-how/hell-no position on stadium funding during the campaign.

It will be dicey, but the Vikings’ best talking point for any candidate has got to be: “The Vikings are a major state asset. We’d be a lesser community without them. I’m a candidate who can solve problems. I don’t know the answers right now, but I’m confident we can roll up our sleeves and get this done. I’m a problem-solver, not a naysayer.”

For their part, the Vikings are putting on a happy face and already have developed a cute one-liner. Lester Bagley, vice president of public affairs/stadium development, told MinnPost today, “The governor still has 19 months left, and we look forward to working with him on the other term that expires.”

The Vikes’ once-30-year-long Dome lease is that other term, of course. Its days are as numbered as Gov. Pawlenty’s.