The latest state budget forecast is out. The Arden Hills City Council will vote tonight on whether to continue to court the Vikings. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, after months of a shaky relationship with the football team, has become more engaged.
Even as the NFL may be headed for labor-management Armageddon this week — a crisis that could derail any stadium appetite — legislators at the Capitol are closing in on a bill for a Vikings stadium.
New Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission Chairman Ted Mondale’s learning curve is peaking, and Gov Mark Dayton has laid down some loosey-goosey guidelines for a “people’s stadium.”
Tuesday is March 1. It’s time to propose and debate a Vikings stadium deal. The longer everyone waits, the shorter time there is to analyze it, fix it, and make it as socially responsible as a stadium bill can ever be.
For a decade now, I have written about a “global solution” to the state’s sports and public assembly facilities matters, seeking an ongoing unified funding source and a singular administrative umbrella for stadiums, arenas and convention centers. That still should be a goal. It would stop this merry-go-round of erratic stadium deals, this “all stadiums all the time” cycle as Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson recently described Minnesota’s never-ending, catch-as-catch-can approach.
But, as always, procrastination and pressing politics tends to make bad policy. Unfortunately, we’re headed that way again on the Vikings deal. The realpolitik of the moment — an awful state deficit, resulting social cutbacks, attacks on public employees and Local Government Aid, no-new-taxes from the right and other priorities from the left — won’t allow for creative breakthroughs on the sports facilities front.
For now, it’s time to lay down the parameters for a Vikings stadium: where, what and how. As crunch time approaches, we can’t allow the team to drive this. If the community and state want an NFL team long-term, we must come up with the framework of a solution.
It will be up to the team owners and the NFL leaders to determine if they can live with it. Given the size of this market, the historic support for the franchise and a rational stadium plan, the owners and league will have no other choice than to accept it.
Location, team money
Mondale said last week that sometime in the next 10 days or so, legislative leaders will produce a bill. It is likely to be so-called “site neutral,” letting different communities slug it out.
That’s a waste of time and plays into the team’s hands.
If the goal is to limit the cost of construction, the only place this stadium can go is the current Metrodome site, or, perhaps, a piece of land to the west that now houses the Star Tribune (my former employer.)
Putting the stadium on the Dome site is the first building block for Dayton’s call for a “people’s stadium.”
There are those who argue that the ultimate “people’s stadium” is one that the team’s owners build with their own money and that it should be built completely privately. It surely would make life and politics easier.
But it’s a dream. It denies the sordid reality of modern sports business and facilities financing.
Ideally, team owners nationally would build their own stadiums. A handful of them have. We salute them. They are outliers. In the Twin Cities market, we have had one experience with a totally privately build sports facility: Target Center. That experience?
The prideful owners fended off some public aid other than infrastructure, they overreached, the economy tanked, the Gulf War dried up family shows and concerts, the project tipped sideways, and the city of Minneapolis — stuck with a landmark building in its emerging Warehouse District — had to come to its bailout rescue, spending more than $80 million, a burden on property tax holders ever since.
If Zygi Wilf and his partners — super-wealthy people from outside of Minnesota — were planning on such a private stadium project, they would have begun it six years ago when they bought the team. We’d have a new facility already.
It’s not gonna happen. The Wilfs — who control the fate of the NFL franchise with their league partners — are not going to build this stadium on their own. They should. They won’t.
So, it comes to this: Do we — leftists, rightists, sports fans, community activists, economic developers, politicians up for re-election in 2012 — want to retain this coveted sports franchise?
If a new stadium is not built, the NFL will have to move the team. Not tomorrow. Not next year. But at some point.
Do we want to keep the Vikings long term? That’s where this legislation and debate begins.
If the answer is, “No,” that’s easy. Gov. Dayton and the Legislature, Mayor Rybak and the City Council, Hennepin County Chairman Mike Opat and the county board can do nothing, and let the forces play themselves out.
By 2013 or ’14 or so — after much drama and hand-wringing, lawsuits and talk show and web venting — the Wilfs would likely sell the team, and it could move somewhere where a stadium is being built or a sweetheart deal awaits.
End of story. Life goes on.
If the answer is, “Yes, let’s keep them,” the next door to walk through is this: “At what cost?”
Getting a handle on costs
Ideally, the stadium would come in at the bottom end of the $700 million to $800 million range. That is already an obscene number, but it’s what things cost. There is no way this community can or should be part of a $1 billion-plus project for sports.
“The price tags on these things keep going up, and I think we’ve got to go the other way,” Mondale said in an interview last week. The mantra around the Capitol these days is “We’re not doing Dallas,” meaning the $1.3 billion it cost to build the new Cowboys’ football palace.
I have always thought that a roof was unnecessary. The Vikings feel the same way. An open-air stadium increases the value of luxury suites and club seats; it allows the richest fans to pay to be inside while the rest of us bundle up in the “cheap” seats.
A stadium without a roof would cost about $180 million less than a stadium with a roof, Mondale estimates.
But the politics of the debate seem to show that a roof will be part of the package. I’m told that legislators from Greater Minnesota won’t vote for a new stadium unless there’s a roof, so their high school teams can play games there. And it allows for the University of Minnesota baseball and softball programs to thrive, along with small college teams. It also means Minnesota could bid for a men’s NCAA basketball Final Four … once a decade.
“I’ve not heard anyone say that an open-air stadium is going to work,” Mondale said.
I’ve always doubted that having the state high school football and soccer championships or dozens of small college baseball games and a Final Four every 10 years at a new stadium is worth $180 million. The operational costs of a domed stadium are sky high. The energy costs soar, too. I don’t think this exactly plugs into the “people’s stadium” construct.
We are also continuously told that the Metrodome plays host to more than 300 “events” a year, and so will a new Vikings roofed stadium. A quick perusal of the Dome’s event calendar for 2010 showed, by my count, two events — other than amateur soccer, baseball and flag football — that were Dome necessary: TwinsFest, the Twins annual fan appreciation fair, and Monster Jam, a motor show.
Beyond that, all the other “events” — including the Hmong American New Year celebration and a Jewish Federation event on Christmas — were movable to an indoor arena, such as Target Center or Xcel Energy Center, two publicly funded buildings in need of their own revenues.
Again, politics will trump policy here. Bottom line: The stadium deal will include a roof. With that in mind, we have to make sure the facility is used regularly for purposes OTHER THAN sports.
Land and preparation costs
Knowing that a roof will spike the cost of the stadium means we must locate it in a cost-efficient place that also serves a public purpose: It must have public transit, must have the potential for other urban street traffic, must be centrally located and must have familiarity with customers/citizens.
Re-using the Metrodome site is the most socially responsible option. Light rail and other public transit go there. Fans know how to get there. Parking ramps are nearby.
A study conducted in January for the City of Minneapolis by local real estate consultants came up with these stats: The possible costs of acquiring and preparing land near the Minneapolis Farmers Market and Target Field — a site the Vikings have pondered — is somewhere between $69 million and $181 million.
That compares with a $30 million to $70 million site prep at the Dome site, with most of that devoted to the construction of parking garages for premium customers.
(The Arden Hills site, which is being backed by the Ramsey County Board, would require at least $150 million in road work, let alone another $15 million to $18 million in environmental remediation. Sorry, guys, makes no sense.)
The idea of using the Star Tribune land to the west of the Dome is intriguing. It would allow the Vikings to remain in the Dome while the new stadium is being built. Other communities have done it that way, in Milwaukee with Miller Park, in Philadelphia with new stadiums going up while Veterans Stadium was being used in the same parking lots.
Apparently, there would be some substantial infrastructural work needed to place the new stadium on the newspaper’s site. And there would be the acquisition costs. (Mondale, by the way, said he knew of no percolating talks between the team and the newspaper.) For sure, it would be good for the Vikings to keep playing in the Dome during construction.
If the current Metrodome site is recycled and the Vikings have to play two seasons at the U’s TCF Bank Stadium, they will claim a shortfall on revenues during that time, what with fewer seats and fewer suites on campus.
Assuming the team and the ‘U’ could work out a deal for those two seasons, the public needs to be cautious of the demands the team will make for some sort of “make-good” subsidies during that time.
Of any compensation to the Vikings for playing outside the Dome for a couple of seasons, Mondale said: “I’m not quite sure that’s a public purpose.”
It’s not. As a matter of policy, the legislation should not provide a subsidy during those two years. A new stadium with millions of dollars of increased revenues will await the team. That should be enough of a public subsidy.
More on ‘people’s stadium’
More than the number of events in the stadium, there is a chance to make this facility a 365-day-a-year place. Any legislation must be forward-looking and define this building — which will play host to fewer than 20 major events a year — as a community center, too. The Vikings need to participate in this visioning.
We must explore public uses for this stadium and attempt to make it a truly urban football stadium. Can we?
Can we put a sports management program of Minneapolis Community and Technology College in the building? Can we house a police station in there? Can nearby Hennepin County Medical Center set up an urgent care center there? Will a Vikings’ Hall of Fame attract people year-round? Can a football-themed restaurant work in there? Does a health club or ‘Y’ in the stadium for community residents make sense?
Think about it. It won’t add much cost to it, and will allow people in the downtown, university and Elliot Park neighborhoods to use the place, not just athletes. Then it begins to look a little bit like a “people’s stadium.”
How to pay for it — what the team must do
First, the team pays half.
It can use all the private funding it can get its hands on — naming rights, private seat licenses, signage, premium parking — but whatever the price of the stadium project, the Vikings — or private dollars — pay 50 percent. By the way, the NFL could be expected to assist the team, too. By the way, the “business community” in this town — which claims pro sports are a necessary amenity to attract key employees — has to step up. It did in previous stadium deals.
The notion that the team will pay one-third of a roofless stadium is one that “is not considered seriously by decision-makers,” said Mondale.
Let’s say that would leave about $400 million to tackle for the public.
There is this continual talk of a local partner, but neither the city of Minneapolis nor Hennepin County alone should be stuck with another stadium bill. Minneapolis has its Target Center albatross. Hennepin County is using a tax to fund the Twins ballpark. Minneapolis also has a charter amendment that requires a referendum if it spends more than $10 million on a sports facility.
Gov. Dayton has said no general fund money can be used. So, a tiny statewide sales tax is off the table. But state funding is required.
Greater Minnesota lawmakers can’t have it both ways: They can’t demand a roof for their high school teams to play in and then claim there is no benefit to the state. In fact, the state’s general fund is the largest recipient of sports revenues.
The state of Minnesota put in zero dollars to help build Target Field, but Twins games generated $11.6 million for the state general fund in 2010. Minneapolis officials say that Target Center has averaged about $6 million annually flowing into the state coffers in sales and income taxes over the past 20 years. A study conducted by the Sports Facilities Commission in 2007 showed that if there are any tax benefits from pro sports, about 95 percent accrue to the state coffers.
The Vikings alone generate more than $10 million a year in player income taxes — paid, it can be argued, by network television dollars coming from out of the state.
Dayton has said that the users of the stadium should help to pay for it. That’s ticket-buying customers, that’s corporations and, in a stretch, that’s fans anywhere in the state.
We’re not sure that such “user fees” will add up to the needed debt service of close to $40 million a year, but there is a potential cocktail of revenue streams that could get us close:
• Surcharges on tickets, souvenirs and food and beverage in the stadium: That won’t get us very far. The per capita sales of food, drinks and souvenirs at new NFL stadium totals, at best, about $20. A special tax on that activity could generate a small amount of money, but it’s a start.
• Metrowide hotel/motel/car rental tax: Dayton has mentioned this option, and certainly lodging establishments across the region benefit from the 10 Vikings home games. A Minneapolis city lodging tax generates about $6 million per year. An increase in the hotel/motel tax in surrounding counties could add as much as $8 million annually, according to authors of a bill introduced last year. A boost in car rental taxes statewide could produce another $5 million, the authors claimed. That’s $13 million annually on, generally speaking, tourists. Not all of them would be in town for Vikings’ games, and Greater Minnesota tourists spend time in the Twin Cities on other occasions, and those of us whose cars break down sometimes have to rent a car, but …
• A Vikings-themed lottery game could generate another $5 million annually, the 2010 authors claimed. A Vikings lottery game introduced last summer was highly successful.
• A tax on sports-related apparel statewide. The state’s other teams — notably the Wild and Timberwolves — would likely object if the tax generated off of this went only to a Vikings facility payoff. Last year, stadium backers said a sports apparel tax could generate more than $16 million in revenues. Sounds high, but it’s a concept that taxes sports fans.
No doubt, there are opportunity costs here. If someone wanted, we could use these revenue streams to fund other state programs in need. That’s true.
But these relatively painless taxes could cover the public’s debt, if the stadium’s price is kept as low as possible and if the Vikings put in 50 percent of the cost.
• Other stuff: On the back end of any deal, the Wilfs would have to share the increased value of their franchise, if and when they sell the team, with the state; and lawmakers should explore a complex idea that Minneapolis Mayor Rybak has kicked around that the city (or county or state) capture the increased value of land around a stadium, assuming there is an increase in the value.
It’s time to tell the Vikings these are the components that could be the basis for a deal. And see where it goes.
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.