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Farmers Market site gaining momentum for Vikings stadium

The Twin Cities business community is eyeing the Minneapolis site as a way to leverage the cluster of economic activity around nearby Target Field, Target Center and the entertainment district.

The new word du jour in the Vikings stadium initiative is “cluster.”

But a time-honored stadium modus operandi is back: The Twin Cities business community is alive and kicking hard behind-the-scenes, just like it did in the late 1970s when it pushed for the Metrodome.

Among the CEOs now working with the Vikings are those from U.S. Bank, Ecolab, Wells Fargo, Best Buy, General Mills, Medtronic and Target, the team’s chief lobbyist, Lester Bagley, said Wednesday.

The bottom line: A key group of business leaders and a political veteran of earlier stadium battles seem to be coalescing around a new site — the Minneapolis Farmers Market downtown location — that they believe would leverage the cluster of activity around Target Field, Target Center and the citys entertainment district.

Ballpark ‘player’ Opat getting involved
Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat, for example, now is paying close attention to the Vikings stadium dance. Lest we forget, Opat is the elected official who, more than any other, got the Twins’ Target Field deal done in 2006.

In an interview with MinnPost Wednesday, Commissioner Opat was his usual shrewd self. “I’m being vague,” he said, “because I am vague.”  

But Opat, the former prison guard, always has something up his sleeve, and he is a man of many sleeves. Everyone says Opat is in the middle of what’s percolating, but he downplays his role. For now.

View Vikings stadium site in a larger map
The shaded stadium site, which includes the Minneapolis Farmers Market, is near other city entertainment options.

“The place to focus is, ‘What are the Vikings willing to pay and is the state’s money real?'” Opat asked.

Frankly, we don’t know the answers to those questions.

He went on: “The next question to answer is, ‘Can a local government, in good conscience, support this [Vikings stadium] effort while it takes the body blows from everything else the Legislature is debating?”

Good questions. But be certain of this: Mike Opat is a “cluster” guy.

Political complications plentiful
No hearings in either the House or Senate have yet been scheduled for a Vikings bill, and the Legislature’s May 23 deadline is 25 days away. There remains a stadium bill on the table whose finances don’t add up and which is site neutral, which makes it difficult to get legislative votes.

The state’s dire budget situation remains headed for the proverbial end-of-session train wreck. Gay marriage, Voter ID and abortion bills are causing ideological divides. The education systems are under attack. Health and human services are being hammered.

“The bill probably will not move until there is some kind of framework on the budget deal,” Gov. Mark Dayton’s stadium point man, Ted Mondale, said Wednesday. “Were you to push a Vikings bill right now, all discussion would stop, and there’d be a firing squad line on both sides of the aisle. They would shoot the stadium bill dead, then go back on to their work.”

Ted Mondale
Ted Mondale

As Mondale and others wait for the right time, we suggest watching some key moving parts in the Vikings stadium game. A few emerged Wednesday at a luncheon of 100 or so Minneapolis Downtown Council members on the 50th floor of the IDS Center — a fortuitous venue.

From that bird’s-eye view, one could gaze down at an aging Target Center arena, a successful Target Field and a huge plot of land to the west of the Twins ballpark where a Vikings stadium might nicely fit.

Call it a potential “cluster” of sports and entertainment facilities, and understand that the corporate powers in downtown Minneapolis have fingered that 49-acre site as the best for a Vikings stadium.

Unlike Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson, who prefer to see a stadium built on the current Metrodome site, the business leaders in the Central Business District are driving momentum for this parcel known as the Farmers Market site or North Loop site. They include the likes of U.S. Bank’s Richard Davis and Target Corp.’s property development vice president, John Griffith.

At least a half-dozen companies have contributed money to hire former Minnesota Wild President Jac Sperling to design a workable deal. A Wells Fargo spokesperson confirmed to MinnPost Wednesday that the bank has kicked in $25,000, and that’s what the others have, too, we’re told.

Sperling helped broker the deal that brought the National Hockey League to St. Paul, and he has struck many other mega-sports business deals around the country, from team sales to stadium finance plans and leases. He is being paid by folks who favor this Farmers Market site.

One other guy does, too. That’s Chairman Opat. On this, he is not vague.

“I have no interest in pursuing any involvement with the Vikings stadium that is not in the lower North Loop,” Opat said. “I have no interest in the existing Metrodome site . . . I’m not willing to work on it. I will not vote for it. I don’t think that site does anything for anybody except the Vikings.”

Mike Opat
Mike Opat

Let’s just say that the mayor of Minneapolis and the County Board chair are not on the same page. Do not expect any city-county partnership.

Is the price right?
Farmers’ Market area advocates see a need to better develop the core Central Business District and Minneapolis’ North Loop. They see that cluster of sports facilities and a redeveloped Block E as a more attractive project than simply rebuilding a Vikings stadium at the Dome site, on the other end of town.

In varying ways, and at different times, other cities have paired and/or clustered stadiums and arenas; Kansas City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Seattle, to name a few. Some of that has occurred in downtowns. Some in other urban neighborhoods or close-in suburbs. (Remember when Metropolitan Stadium and Met Center arena shared the same parking lots in Bloomington?) It’s called synergy and it makes sense.

At Wednesday’s  Downtown Council meeting, I counted the word “cluster” mentioned at least once by four different speakers.

For someone who says he hasn’t been involved much, Opat rattles off the advantages of the Farmers Market site:

• Parking garages for Target Field, Target Center and downtown workers are already in place.

• Potential for redevelopment near there is high.

• The entertainment district is within walking distance.

• Freeways are in place.

• Light rail and high-speed rail, as planned, will all land right near there, just outside Target Field’s front door.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Council is working on a plan called Downtown 2025, and the council’s president, Sam Grabarski, recently told the Twin Cities Business Journal that the current Metrodome site could be more of a neighborhood — linked to the housing near the Guthrie Theater — if the Vikings facility went in the North Loop.

Oh, did we mention the Vikings are also looking at Arden Hills in the Ramsey County suburbs as a site? Backers of that plan are working hard, too.

That brings us to price, and this is where the Metrodome site seems to have a leg up. A detailed analysis comparing the potential costs of a Dome rebuild, the Farmers Market land and the Arden Hills sites is soon to be released by Mondale.

We’re hearing that the clever architects at Minneapolis’ own Ellerbe Beckett, who refurbished Chicago’s Soldier Field, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and New Orleans’s Superdome, have a sweet plan to bring down the cost of a fixed-roof stadium on the Dome site to somewhere near $700 million.

It’s likely that a Farmers Market deal costs, at least, $150 million to $200 million more than that. A January study performed by a Minneapolis city-paid consultant predicted the Farmers’ Market site could cost as much as $111 million more than a Dome site, but that was before the Sports Facilities Commission turned to Ellerbe for a less-expensive stadium.

Arden Hills is likely even more expensive than the Farmers Market site because of infrastructure — road and land cleanup — costs. But, for now, we’re not sure.

Logic and realpolitik suggest the lower the cost, the better, particularly in this political and economic environment, with the state $5 billion in the hole, and poor people getting hammered by budget cuts. But among insiders, there’s a difference of opinion about a stadium price point.

Some lobbyists believe that lawmakers will be either for or against a stadium on its own and that the price doesn’t matter as much in the decision.

Others disagree, thinking there are many potential votes at the Capitol to be had from nervous lawmakers — all up for reelection in 2012 — if the facility is cheaper. The theory goes that a lawmaker might be able to hold his nose and vote yes for a $700 million stadium to “save the Vikings.” But there’s no way he pushes that green “yes” button for something with “the ‘B’ word,” meaning a billion or more.

Opat warns against fixating on the price or land acquisition costs.

“I think there’s a long way to go on all that,” he said. “To get bogged down in site costs is a mistake because there’s going to be site costs and alleged site costs.”

The Vikings’ Bagley bluntly told the Downtown Council lunch group: “It’s much more about a local partner than it is about the site. There are three sites in play, but importantly, what are the finance arrangements?”

There’s another tricky operational issue with the Dome site. If, as Mondale put it, “you blow it up” after the final Vikings game of 2011, the team needs a place to play for, probably, three seasons. The most likely candidate is the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. The team is claiming it will “suffer” about $19 million per year in lost revenue because of the smaller capacity and the loss of suite and naming rights revenues, among other things. Mondale places that loss closer to $15 million. It all could come out of any team up-front investment, but it is a clunky problem if the Dome site is used.

If another site is selected, the team could play in the Dome until the new stadium is ready.

How does a deal happen?
That still leaves how the darn thing gets paid for. Gov. Dayton laid down a bit more of his gauntlet earlier this week saying on Minnesota Public Radio that the team must kick in 40 or 50 percent.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost/James Nord
Gov. Mark Dayton

In the current bill, the state has, in theory, about a $300 million potential stake in there. But the bill will change.

That leaves the rest for the so-called local partner. What’s out there? An increase in a city-wide or county-wide hotel tax? Gov. Dayton’s interest in rental car taxes? Could be.

An extension of the controversial Hennepin County .015 percent sales tax that Opat successfully got passed for the Twins ballpark? No way, said Opat. That revenue stream is specifically dedicated to Target Field.

How about the oft-mentioned taxes that fund the Minneapolis Convention Center’s debt, which is set to be paid off by the year 2020? Mayor Rybak and Council President Johnson have emphatically stated that bundle of city-only sales, entertainment, restaurant, bar and lodging taxes is off-limits because the Convention Center needs its own renovations and improvements.

Opat, who grew up in Minneapolis but now lives in Robbinsdale, isn’t so sure. “I don’t control that money,” Opat said of the city taxes, “but I think it’s a valid point that there’s a lot of money that accrues. I think [using Convention Center taxes] is an interesting notion,” he said, echoing the view of some legislators, including DFLers.

Gaming? Talk to lobbyists in the hallways of the Capitol and just about all of them — whether they’re for gambling or not — always come around to gambling of some form — bar and restaurant electronic pull tabs? — as one piece of any final state budget and Vikings deal.

How about some substantial cash from the companies backing a stadium, an effort they say helps to lure and retain top employees to the Twin Cities? Could each of them get their shareholders to approve $10 million or $20 million in corporate dough to put a stadium funding plan over the top? Call it a user fee.

A quick check of state Campaign Finance Board records reveals that stadium-backers do spend freely to gain access to legislative leaders. Last time we looked, Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature.

Davis of U.S. Bank gave $1,000 to GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, and Doug Baker of Ecolab gave $2,000 to Emmer. Gregg Steinhafel, CEO of Target Corp., which has become downtown’s major player, gave the Republican Party of Minnesota $25,000 in 2010. Timberwolves owner Glenn Taylor, whose team would like to see a Vikings bill set the mood for a $155 million Target Center renovation, gave $90,000 to the GOP.

Reggie Fowler, who once tried to buy the Vikings but who retained a tiny piece when Zygi Wilf bought the franchise, gave $2,500 to the GOP Senate Victory Fund. Leonard Wilf, Zygi’s cousin and a team partner, gave $4,000 to  the fund, and Zygi Wilf $3,500. Zygi’s brother Mark gave $4,300 to the House Republican Caucus fund. (Zygi Wilf also gave to the DFL House and Senate caucuses.)

Thus, a Vikings stadium stew is being stirred.

There’s a huddle of CEOs with political clout working on it. There’s Commissioner Opat, worried about substantial cuts to Hennepin County for more core services, but monitoring the process, his opaque sleeves poised to be to rolled up.

There’s the cost issue, which could turn the Dome site into the practical option. But counter that with the power of a big idea like a football stadium next to a baseball stadium next to a multipurpose arena at the confluence of rail lines and adjacent to the Central Business and entertainment districts, with a spiffed-up Farmers’ Market thrown in for good measure.

One might say we’ve got a cluster of things to keep our eyes on.

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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