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

Whatever happens with a Vikings stadium and Target Center renovations will depend, Rybak says, on concerns over complicated financing and fairness issues.

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.