“You have dreams that you’d like to have something that puts you in the forefront, in a state-of-the-art facility, not in a stadium like ours that’s not up to date … We want to make sure we’re being treated fairly and make sure we’re not the last one in the game.”
— Former Vikings president Roger Headrick, October 12, 1996
“Churn” is the word being tossed around at the Capitol these days when that gnawing problem, a Vikings stadium, comes up in conversation.
Nothing is set in place. Substantial progress, ready-to-introduce bills and votes-in-hand remain distant realities. Amid a $6.2 billion state deficit and a newly configured and inexperienced Legislature, a serious Vikings stadium plan is absent.
The issue — that the team can’t be economically competitive with other NFL franchises in the Metrodome — has been around for three ownership groups, beginning in the Clinton administration with Roger Headrick’s consortium.
Now, almost six years since a frustrated Red McCombs sold the team to the now frustrated Zygi Wilf, fundamental elements of any deal remain murky at best: site, cost, public funding sources, roof or roofless, the amount of Wilf’s private investment, support from that amorphous “business community” … all question marks.
That’s the landscape even as the Vikings’ lease is set to expire after the 2011 season at the damaged Metrodome, assuming there is a 2011 season as NFL labor negotiations trudge on.
It’s all going to play out through May against a backdrop of counties, cities and towns reeling from cuts in state government aids, schools hurting, and a visceral opposition bound to rise because of the optics of a stadium being built while more essential needs are being cut.
The other backdrop: record TV ratings for the Vikings and a cultural asset that is an integral part of Minnesota’s “brand.”
It’s inevitable: A stadium debate in Minnesota becomes a vehicle for arguments dipped in class warfare and competing social priorities, for assertions about civic imagery and national status, about fears of a team leaving or visions of a community being held hostage by an owner or a league.
That’s why a stadium bill, if and when it gets to the Senate and House floors, can be expected to be the final vote of the 2011 session. We have 18 more weeks to watch this form, or fizzle, to try to keep track of all the moving parts.
Gambling issue interrelated
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who will lead the effort in the Senate, said in an interview last week that she will seek a “clean bill,” if and when all the key pieces can be put in place. But keeping this matter “clean” — that is, unencumbered by other controversial issues — will be an awesome task.
Once a Vikings bill is introduced, it just might resemble one of those last flights out of Saigon, with other, somewhat desperate, special interests grabbing onto the stadium’s girders in hopes of arriving at their own promised land. After all, as Headrick prophesied 15 years ago, this Vikings’ project could be “the last one in the game.”
Various forms of gaming will surely be linked to any stadium bill. Whether they wind up serving as a funding source for the facility, only time will tell.
But this we know: “As soon as [Rosen’s] bill gets to the tax committee or wherever, there will definitely be an amendment for racino,” said former Sen. Dick Day, now the chief lobbyist for an effort to put slot machines at the state’s two race tracks, Canterbury Park and Running Aces.
Using Minnesota Lottery data, Day says putting slots at the tracks in Shakopee and Columbus could generate $125 million a year after taxes to the state coffers. He says he doesn’t care where those proceeds go. He just knows the state needs revenue, and the stadium matter could be one easy recipient. Total debt service on a Vikings stadium will likely reach into the range of $50 million to $70 million a year.
“Is it something they really want to solve?” Day asked of the Legislature and the Vikings. If so, he said, a racino is “a no-brainer.”
But racinos won’t be alone on the gaming front. Bar owners will soon be lobbying for the introduction of electronic pull tabs in enterprises across the state.
They claim an even greater ability to raise money for the state general fund.
While one recent poll has shown support for state-sponsored gambling as a way to raise state revenues, there is, clearly, opposition to gambling, too, from the right and the left. And, of course, from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents the state’s largest Indian-owned casinos.
At last count: Canterbury, Running Aces and the Racino Now effort have 10 lobbyists working together for their cause; on the other side, the Mdewakanton Sioux, Prairie Island Dakota Community, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and MIGA have a combined 25 registered lobbyists.
Other sports arenas in play, too
There are other sports facilities — already recipients of public funds — that want improvements or debt relief.
The city of Minneapolis, which was on the hook originally for the Metrodome, bailed out Target Center 15 years ago. Believe it or not, the 20-year-old building is now among the oldest in the NBA. The Timberwolves soon will unveil a refurbishing plan that could cost as much as $100 million.
Minneapolis city officials are looking for ways to fund that. “We have some capacity” to renovate Target Center, City Council President Barbara Johnson said. But, clearly, wheels are turning about seeking some bonding help from the state for the arena, as was done last session.
Or, perhaps, some relief on paying down the Target Center debt, or even the Minneapolis Convention Center debt.
St. Paul and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild want to be at the table, too.
Wild Chief Financial Officer Jeff Pellegrom said his franchise and its parent company, which manages Xcel Energy Center, are “certainly aware of Minnesota’s financial situation.” But most of the $37 million remaining on the arena’s mortgage is paid by the team, which, Pellegrom said, has the second most expensive rent in the NHL.
“If there’s going to be activity on sports venues, we certainly want to make sure the Legislature … takes [our interests] into consideration,” Pellegrom said of the Wild and Xcel Energy Center. “I don’t think we’re planning on driving legislation, but if there is legislation, we certainly want to be involved in the discussion.”
St. Paul city officials also are backing the concept of a new downtown stadium for the minor league St. Paul Saints. That could be a $25 million bonding proposition for the state.
In the ongoing sibling rivalry that’s dogged sports facilities debates for 60 years, St. Paul officials believe if a Vikings stadium is going to be placed in Minneapolis, then they should get their fair share, too, in the capital city.
Meanwhile, some legislators and the Vikings, for that matter, continue to covet the proceeds from an entertainment tax that helps to pay the debt on the Minneapolis Convention Center. Although it is a regional convention facility, the city’s taxpayers and visitors pay for the entire operation. City officials contend they need those tax proceeds to not only pay off the convention center’s debt by 2020, but to maintain and expand the facility to keep it competitive.
On the other hand, if the state were willing to lift some of the city’s Target Center or Convention Center debt, maybe the city’s entertainment taxes could be examined.
“If some of our obligation was removed, maybe we could talk,” said Council President Johnson, a practical and experienced deal-maker.
Regional benefits — and funding?
But if the value of sports facilities to the state and the benefits of gambling to state coffers are going to be part of the conversation, so, too, expect a conversation about statewide or regional funding.
Why, for instance, should only a Hennepin County sales tax fund the Twins ballpark, or other local taxes pay for Target Center or St. Paul’s RiverCentre? Aren’t these facilities beneficial to the entire metro area, and the state? Shouldn’t everyone pay?
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke speculatively last week on Minnesota Public Radio about a tiny — 0.01 percent — statewide entertainment tax that could fund facilities. As was originally proposed to fund the Metrodome in the late 1970s, could there be a metrowide funding solution?
Watch new Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission Chairman Ted Mondale. He was, after all, the former chairman of the Metropolitan Council. He said last week he and Gov. Mark Dayton aren’t wedded to any location.
There’s no reason to believe a Vikings stadium can only be located in Minneapolis at the current Metrodome site, or near it, as many assume.
An active lobbying effort last week at the Capitol for a Vikings stadium was being led by Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett. He is promoting a site in Arden Hills that’s part of the massive Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant.
The county board hasn’t taken a position on building a stadium there. An earlier plan to include Anoka and Washington counties in some sort of funding consortium has died. But Bennett said last week, “This site is very viable,” and already has significant access via I-35E and I-35W, Highway 610 and Highway 96, Bennett said.
Whether the Vikings are using this site as leverage to goose Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials into being more active isn’t clear.
This site, though, just like a Blaine proposal a few years back, is the always-intriguing suburban option. It provides lots of room for parking and team revenues and, perhaps, development for owner Zygi Wilf, whose family fortune came from real estate and shopping malls.
Some may call it the “Foxboro model,” because it could be somewhat similar to the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, which is 33 miles from downtown Boston. The Army Ammunition Land is about 15 miles from downtown Minneapolis.
But the Wilf family might be careful what they wish for here. Foxboro’s stadium was built with all private money.
Also, would a suburban car-centric stadium fulfill Gov. Dayton’s notion of a “people’s stadium”? Wouldn’t public transportation — like the LRT running to the Dome and Target Field — be an essential part of a “people’s stadium?”
Which leads to the roof issue. Vikings ownership claims it doesn’t need one, but most lawmakers disagree; if there’s going to be a multi-use, public-friendly facility, it needs a roof, they say.
Business community’s role
Another piece to watch is the state’s amorphous business community. It was once characterized as the “big cigars” who made mega-projects like the Metrodome happen in the Twin Cities. This time ’round, key organizations, such as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Business Partnership, have been slow to be out front on the stadium effort. There’s activity in the background, but not the sort of cheerleading that such an effort usually requires. Perhaps it’s their aversion to taxes.
Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who has been a consistent supporter of Vikings stadium efforts, challenged business leaders at the Chamber’s annual banquet earlier this month. Sitting on a stage with Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers, Bakk said Koch and Zellers “can’t get this done without your help … They have caucuses with a lot of new people who made some kind of commitments on the campaign trail, because, frankly, the issue doesn’t poll very well.
“For them to get this done, they’re gonna need help. I think the best group in this state, if there is one, to provide them the help that they need, — call it cover, if you like — to get this done is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. I’m asking you to step up and give them a hand, or this isn’t going to happen.”
The response in the banquet hall filled with 1,500 people? A very lukewarm smattering of applause.
Upon his appointment Friday, Mondale was asked about all these potential pieces of the stadium puzzle.
He acknowledged that “we have not had a really good coordinated approach as to how we do public sports facilities.” But, he added, “Going forward, I don’t know what the public’s appetite, or the Legislature’s appetite, is to throw something in bigger” than just a Vikings stadium.
Appetite is one thing. Loading up the plate and seeing what gets eaten is another. Can such a diverse collection of issues and controversies find happiness in one honking stadium package? Can a Vikings bill be “loved to death” by all the other desires? Can Sen. Rosen succeed with her “clean” Vikings-stadium-only bill?
Or is there an advantage to this diversity of interests that could combine to garner the votes needed for passage?
We will know come May 23. That’s when the Legislature adjourns, and all the parts in this Vikings stadium process will have to stop moving.
MinnPost’s Jay Weiner has covered sports facilities issues in the Twin Cities since 1993 and the demise of Met Center and public buyout of Target Center. He is the author of “Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles,” University of Minnesota Press, 2000.