Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis are at center of any ‘cosmic’ sports facilities solution

From left, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, Downtown Council board chairman Tim O'Connor and Mayor R.T. Rybak tout Target Center renovation plans.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
From left, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, Downtown Council board chairman Tim O’Connor and Mayor R.T. Rybak tout Target Center renovation plans.

Tuesday, he walked up to a microphone, stood next to the billionaire owner of a pro sports team and unveiled a $155 million architectural plan for a facelift of Target Center. He called the proposed renovation effort “a sensible, sustainable Minnesota solution.”

Barely 24 hours later, he had heard from some voices in Minneapolis’s active neighborhoods who thought he was dead wrong pushing for an arena’s rebirth while his city faced so many other, more pressing needs.

“I don’t want to deal with this issue [of the arena], frankly, but we simply have to do it,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told MinnPost Wednesday afternoon, sitting at a conference table in his City Hall office. “Because unless you take some action now, you’re going to be paying a lot more later. As tough as it is to address these issues in this period of time, it would be worse and deeply irresponsible for me to simply close my eyes to these issues, have the costs mount and pass it on to somebody who is sitting in my chair later.”

He went on: “Most people share my priorities” — police, fire, street maintenance, property taxes, schools, transit. “Those are my values,” he said. “Anybody who is concerned about priorities, I have the exact same concerns.”

But mayors get stuck with the burdens of failed arena deals decades earlier. Stadium politics happen, and there are a handful of big honking edifices staring at him and the City Council right now:

• The dying Metrodome, which Minneapolis taxpayers and visitors subsidized with a liquor/hotel-motel tax.

• The aging Target Center, which the city bailed out with taxpayer dollars and continues to subsidize today.

• And the potential new Vikings stadium, which could be located in Minneapolis but is now in play at the State Capitol, where a $6.2 billion state deficit dominates discussions.

If the Vikings debate ever coalesces, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton are sure to look covetously at Minneapolis and its existing entertainment and hotel taxes to be “THE local partner.” But Rybak protests: “We’re looking for equity.” He’s looking for a statewide or regional funding solution.

The ‘local partner’ issue
History shows Minneapolis has long helped fund major league sports; Minneapolis-backed bonds aided in the construction of Metropolitan Stadium in the 1950s, even though the facility was built in Bloomington.

That’s why he has symbolically floated the notion of a tiny statewide entertainment tax (a one-penny tax on $10) to fund a stadium, an idea to reinforce the notion that the Vikings and a stadium are a statewide asset and problem, not the city’s. That 87-county sales tax idea, according to legislators we’ve talked to, is dead on arrival. Rybak seems to know that, but said, “My point is … any solution has to include everyone.”

Bills proposed last session — and bound to be introduced soon again at the Legislature — attempt to loot the Minneapolis 3 percent entertainment tax that helps fund the Minneapolis Convention Center. Some lawmakers point to a time relatively soon — the year 2020 — when the Convention Center’s debt will be paid down, and the tax could be moved over to help fund a Vikings stadium.

No, said Rybak. “That is a wildly simplistic, absurd assumption” that the Convention Center won’t need expansion and maintenance. The city’s entertainment tax (PDF) will be needed to stay alive beyond 2020 so as to compete with other cities for large conventions.

It’s not like the Convention Center is flourishing either.

Still, there’s whispering at the Capitol that the Legislature — which giveth and taketh away local taxing authority — could simply attempt to shut off the Minneapolis tax in 2020 unless the city plays ball on a Vikings finance plan.

“They can do whatever they want,” Rybak said. “But if they remove that hospitality tax [from funding the Convention Center] they would be immediately removing jobs from the metro area. … The idea that the one city that has stepped up over and over again on major league facilities should be the only one that funds [the Vikings stadium] is ridiculous … The Convention Center has far more economic impact for creating jobs than the Vikings stadium will ever have … If we can’t get state support for the statewide Vikings, then maybe there’s not a solution, but at a period of time where there’s been a disproportionate cut to Local Government Aid to the city of Minneapolis … we’re still willing to be the host and pay more, but it’s a fallacy that we haven’t been a local partner. We’ve been THE local partner for years.”

Stadium site games?
Will Minneapolis be the local partner again?

There were rumbles at the Capitol Wednesday that the Vikings and Ramsey County Board Commissioner Tony Bennett are talking about an “exclusive” negotiating partnership to bring a stadium to Arden Hills.

There are lots of smirks about the viability of such a plan and how it would fit into Dayton’s call for a “people’s stadium.”

But Rybak’s body language suggested he wasn’t bothered by the Arden Hills chitchat.

“If they did that, I shouldn’t as the Mayor of Minneapolis jump up and say, ‘Terrible idea’ … I believe we should look at every idea without parochial interests, and if it was up to us to play a regional role, we should do that.”

Is the Vikings’ romancing of Ramsey County simply leverage with Minneapolis?

“I don’t know. I’ve called the Vikings. I haven’t heard back. I have an open door to talk with them, if they want to,” he said. “But nobody should expect that getting some publicity and trying to pull people’s chains [on location] is somehow going to move us …”

Target Center renovations in play
For the mayor, Target Center is center stage now. After all, his city owns the darned place. He joined Glen Taylor Tuesday to call for this Target Center makeover, but with nary a syllable about funding. How could that be?

“I haven’t come up with a solution yet,” Rybak said, “but we’ve got to put that in the public discussion.”

He noted that there are many public gathering projects floating about: the Vikings, St. Paul Saints, and convention facilities in Greater Minnesota.

“There’s not a great idea out there to solve any of them,” he said. “I think it’s possible that all these things could get tied up together with a pretty bow [in one legislative bill], but it’s unlikely everything thing can get solved with one brilliant idea.”

But, fundamentally, why even preserve Target Center for such a package? It is among the oldest arenas in the NBA and with a $155 million need. We already have a newer arena in St. Paul? Are two major league arenas really sustainable?

As Arena Digest opined earlier this week: “One could argue it is not an economically wise decision to throw good money after bad. There is not a market that can support two major arenas, and the Twin Cities are no different.”

Rybak said he has asked staffers that question: “Would we be better off not being in this business?” meaning owning the Target Center.

Target Center would get a makeover under a plan unveiled Tuesday.
Courtesy of Ellerbe Beckett
Target Center would get a makeover under a plan unveiled Tuesday.

Well, maybe, he’s concluded, but … there’s no one in line to buy the place, the city has invested more than $100 million in it, the state has received more than $100 million in tax revenues from activities from the arena, the place continues to have substantial bookings, and the Wolves have a lease to play there.

“Closing Target Center would remove 200 event nights from the center of the city,” he said. “Right now it would be stupid to kill a cash cow.”

And then, of course, there is that dirty little city ordinance, passed in 1997 by Minneapolis voters, the one that states any city spending of “over $10 million dollars for the financing of professional sports facilities” must be approved by a citywide referendum,

“That’s one of about 57 huge questions that are unanswered right now,” Rybak said, dodging the prospect of a citizen uprising on sports facilities funding.

But he’s the one who walked up to that mic on Tuesday and said Target Center needs to be preserved at a high cost in an awful environment. In the weeks to come, he’s the one who will have to step up to a different mic to come with some answers to this inconvenient stadium and arena quagmire.

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.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jim Roth on 02/03/2011 - 11:14 am.

    I know this isn’t a solution but I remember a conversation with Bob Dayton several years ago in which he observed that “it’s ridiculous for Minneapolis and St. Paul to keep competing over everything.” I have thought about that every time these issues arise ever since.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/03/2011 - 11:43 am.

    The Timber Wolves are the love child of the Washington Nationals and the ever popular Kenny Jay. Their role in the NBA isn’t as a team, it’s as an opponent, since it seems to be a rule of the sport that the real teams need someone to play in order to have games and sell tickets. We have invested a lot in the Timber wolves and seen no return on that investment. It just may be time to pull the plug on that organization, and spend the money and resources where we have a more realistic chance of success.

  3. Submitted by Mark Snyder on 02/03/2011 - 02:13 pm.

    Question for Hiram: What would you consider a return on investment from the Timberwolves?

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/03/2011 - 04:23 pm.

    Getting to the playoffs would be nice. As I understand it, the NBA plays an entire season just in order to eliminate the Timber Wolves from the playoffs. But in a league where the vast majority of teams have little impact, the Wolves are in the category of the hopeless. There just isn’t much point to them.

  5. Submitted by craig furguson on 02/03/2011 - 10:18 pm.

    “but it’s a fallacy that we haven’t been a local partner. We’ve been THE local partner for years.” I thought that Hennepin County was the local partner for the Twins. Hennepin has also taken over the Minneapolis workhouse, jail, hospital and library, including a share of underfunded MERF (pension) obligations. Minneapolis is tapped out with their 11 cents on the dollar sales tax downtown. Hennepin isn’t likely to stick their neck out after the Twins Stadium funding issues. St. Paul and Minneapolis are represented by Dems, while the tide has turned to the GOP in much of the rest of the state. I’m guessing their projects are not going to get much sympathy. I’m thinking odds are good that the Vikes will move to Arden Hills if the stadium is built and other bonding projects will not progress.

  6. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 02/04/2011 - 08:29 am.

    Jay, Thanks for reminding us of that nasty little referendum requirement if the city of Minneapolis wants to contribute more than $10 million to a stadium project.

    Of course, state legislators can “waive” that requirement like they waived the required referendum for the local option sales that’s funding the Twins stadium.

    The Twins found the “four horsemen” on the Hennepin County Board to ask for that waiver and legislators not from Hennepin County to ram the “new” tax down our throats.

    I seriously doubt Mayor Rybak and the Minneapolis City Council will request a similar “end run” around the “will of the People” for a Vikings stadium, but there needs to be “host” city and county funding participation for a new Vikings stadium.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/04/2011 - 10:09 am.

    The Vikings have apparently been allowed to NOT pay rent on the Dome for the last nine years.
    Is there any reason to suppose that they would live up to any financial “promises” they make in order to get a new stadium?

    Do the other sports teams pay rent for the Target Center and/or Xcel? Would they be asked to pay anything toward a renovation project?

    If a new football stadium is built in Arden Hills, what might be the estimated cost in tax dollars to build the required infrastructure — utilities, roads, access for buses and trains? Would Mr. Wilf pay for any portion of it?

  8. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 02/06/2011 - 03:26 pm.

    LMAO… Bernice, Zygi’s not putting any of his own money into anything. PERIOD!!

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