Viking stadium advocates busy trying to contain lots of ‘little fires’ of controversy

Zygi Wilf dodged questions about whether he thought voters would strike down Ramsey County's $350 million commitment to the project.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Zygi Wilf dodged questions about whether he thought voters would strike down Ramsey County’s $350 million commitment to the project.

It may be too soon to declare the Vikings’ current Arden Hills stadium proposal highly combustible, but one of its biggest advocates is worried about all the “little fires” of controversy surrounding Ramsey County’s $1.1 billion plan.

Commissioner Tony Bennett, the county’s lead “fireman” on the project, touted the benefits of the proposed Arden Hills site: huge investments in the community, a vast influx of construction jobs and long-term employment, the cleanup of Minnesota’s largest Superfund site and eventually robust private development.

“What more could you ask for?” he said.

Commissioner Bennett pushes Arden Hills plan
“Unfortunately, the little things that keep coming up keep causing problems. I call them little fires we have to put out,” Bennett — accompanied by Vikings principal team owner Zygi Wilf — told members of the St. Paul Rotary Club at their Tuesday event.

The stadium issue was largely ignored throughout the contentious 2011 legislative session that focused on budget issues. On Tuesday, though, Wilf and Bennett urged advocates to speak up now to help get a deal finalized before the team’s Metrodome lease expires at the end of this season.

 The latest “little fire” will flare up tonight when the Ramsey County Charter Commission considers commission member Rod Halvorson’s proposal to put a ballot question before voters that would prohibit the county from spending sales tax proceeds that have been proposed to help finance the stadium.

Voters, Bennett said bluntly, would strike down a stadium tax.

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett

But isn’t that a sign that the public at large doesn’t want to finance a new stadium? Not according to the commissioner, who seemed in disbelief about the trouble the nearly decade-old project has faced.

“I can tell you right now, I could put anything on the ballot on any issue — a library, a playground, block nursing, elderly care — I could not pass it in today’s climate on one issue alone,” Bennett said during the event. “To put a stadium up, it won’t pass. But we can do it through the legislative process; they can help us with some better solutions.”

So, how can he put out the fire?

Empowerment from the Legislature to pass a countywide sales tax increase without voter approval, similar to the authority lawmakers gave to Hennepin County for the Twins ballpark.

Dayton referendum comments clarified
Gov. Mark Dayton, meanwhile, made waves when he said Monday that he would support a ballot question in Ramsey County.

“It’s Ramsey County’s issue, but I’d be supportive of it,” he said, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “In a case like this, people should have their own voice. We should do it somewhat expeditiously, like this November, so we can get it decided one way or another because the clock is ticking.”

Lester Bagley, vice president of public affairs and stadium development for the Vikings, moved quickly Tuesday to “clarify” the governor’s comments. He said that Dayton later changed his comments to reflect their true meaning: that the governor would neither support nor oppose a referendum measure.

Dayton also expanded on his views Tuesday in an interview with radio personality Joe Soucheray at the State Fair: “I said yesterday at the Fair that I have no problem if the people of Ramsey County want to have a referendum. This is a process going on. It’s a big decision. It’s a big commitment for the people of Minnesota on their behalf and so I just said I have no problem if they want to go that route.”

The governor added: “I think that’s for the people of Ramsey County to decide. I think that’s for the county commissioners of Ramsey County to decide. The state’s part is what I’m responsible for, and I’m very pleased that [we] will be able to issue bonds as a conduit financing but they’ll [be] paid off entirely by the proceeds, revenues from the stadium. There will not be a general fund tax dollar going into the stadium project through the state of Minnesota. That’s my area of responsibility.”

Dayton on Tuesday also held out the possibility of a November special session.

Wilf dodged questions about whether he thought voters would strike down Ramsey County’s $350 million commitment to the project but said he’d like to avoid the issue entirely.

“We would like to be held on the same playing field as the Twins,” he said. “I know when we were here six years ago advocating for a stadium up in North Anoka that the [Legislature] not only approved without referendum the Twins deal, but also approved a football stadium … Now that we have a partner with Ramsey County, we’re very happy to move that forward.”

Under the Arden Hills plan, the Vikings would pay $407 million (plus potential cost overruns) and the state would be on the line for $300 million, the highest Dayton is willing to go.

If the county’s 17-member Charter Commission agrees to place the question on a ballot, voters would have the opportunity to amend the Ramsey County charter to ban the proposed 0.5 percent sales tax.

Supporters still hoping for fall special session
Ideally for the Vikings, Dayton and his commissioners, lawmakers and the public would come together to support a stadium proposal in Arden Hills that would pass through a legislative special session this fall.

The team took heart in early August when Dayton issued a letter ordering an expedited review of the environmental hazards and transportation issues related to the stadium proposal.

At the time, the team was buoyed by the news. Bagley cited the support of Dayton, the GOP leadership and lawmakers for a fall special session as positive signs while downplaying trouble spots: the lengthy environmental reviews that Dayton’s letter called for and questions about funding $100 million-plus in necessary road improvements for the site.

“Let’s move forward with a resolution in October,” he told the Star Tribune. But Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh and Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission Chairman Ted Mondale — responsible for reviewing the former munitions plant site — said the issue isn’t that simple and could take years to investigate.

Wilf backed away from Bagley’s previous comments Tuesday and offered a guarded response when asked about a fall special session.

“We’re going to work very hard to get all the questions answered that the governor and legislative leaders have put forward so that we can move this process forward,” he said. “We’re very excited about this site, the costs go up year to year, our lease expires at the end of this season, and we’re working very hard to get this done.”

Rising costs, job gains cited
According to Wilf and Bennett, costs associated with building the stadium increase about $50 million a year. They also said the project could create 7,500 construction jobs and an additional 13,000 permanent full- and part-time jobs.

But those financial factors haven’t stopped lawmakers from deferring action in recent years.

Frantic budget negotiations between Dayton and the new GOP majority took precedence over the stadium throughout this session, and the bills’ chief authors — Rep. Morrie Lanning and Sen. Julie Rosen — kept the legislation under wraps until mid-April. Dayton, who expressed support for a “people’s stadium,” didn’t get involved in any specific proposal and left the possibility of any legislation up to lawmakers.

The deal between the Vikings and Ramsey County, reached in May, was quickly overshadowed by the cost of infrastructure improvements at the site that could run an estimated $175 million to $240 million. And legislators never held a hearing on any stadium bill.

Now, new questions are being raised about whether the final stadium proposal will abandon a retractable roof in favor of a cheaper fixed roof.

So, amid uncertainty, one of the few things that seemed clear Tuesday was the Vikings’ allegiance to the Arden Hills site, despite attempts from Minneapolis in late July to woo the team.

Wilf said he’s happy “to have a partner in Ramsey County” and called the northern suburb “a perfect site for the entire Twin Cities area.”

But with so many issues up in the air, it’d be smart to have some options, right? A Plan B?

No, the Vikings say.

“We have a Plan A,” Wilf said, “and that’s what we’re working hard to accomplish.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Bill Davnie on 08/31/2011 - 10:32 am.

    How would a new stadium in Arden Hills create 13,000 new permanent jobs? Is this a projection based on eventual development? Wouldn’t many Vikings/stadium-related jobs simply move from downtown Minneapolis to the new site?

  2. Submitted by Jim Roth on 08/31/2011 - 11:44 am.

    Looks like the standard voodoo predictions that accompany proposals for public funding of professional sports venues.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 08/31/2011 - 01:32 pm.

    I would think a tax to support public funding would present a problem for a no-new-taxes Republican. I suppose they could cut social services some more or education funding. After all giving Ziggy 300 million would be a real lesson to the rest of us so they could argue that they are supporting education by cutting it. The other approach could be to argue that to expect Ziggy to cover that 300 mil from his own accounts would be a form of taxation on Ziggy since he would be that much poorer whether he paid for the stadium or got taxed that amount. Once again a lesson for middle America about job creation.

  4. Submitted by greg copeland on 08/31/2011 - 02:28 pm.

    James Nord, & Metro News Media… Please REPORT TRUTH IN TAXATION:
    The Ramsey County Viking Stadium Contribution is planned to be $675 million, NOT $350 million!

    The proposed Ramsey County 1/2 Cent Sales Tax according to Springstead, the Ramsey County Commissioners fiscal consultant, would provide $675 million dollars to retire bonds for the Vikings Stadium on a 30 year Debt Service Schedule ending in 2042.
    See page 7 of Springstead’s May 27, 2011 report.

    Reporting the FACTS beats the Ramsey County Commissioners Hype everytime! Please it has been over four months since the Springstead report made the $675 million Debt Service Schedule Public…Truth in Taxation!

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/31/2011 - 02:38 pm.

    It’s getting harder and harder to cram these welfare for the wealthy programs through… we’ll see if it’s finally gotten too hard.

  6. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 08/31/2011 - 03:14 pm.

    If the government would just “get out of the way of private enterprise” then Ziggy could go about creating those 13000 jobs.

  7. Submitted by T J Simplot on 08/31/2011 - 03:39 pm.

    Personally I don’t mind public financing of stadiums but I don’t like the Vikings’ sense of entitlement. They keep saying that it is there turn now and that there was no referendum for the Twins stadium so there shouldn’t be one for them either. Each stadium deal should be on its own merits, not how the others were done.

    Also, its often portrayed that only Ramsey County residents would be paying the sales tax. In actuality it’s anybody that buys anything in Ramsey County. A lot of people live in other counties but work in St. Paul they would be contributing. Xcel Center/RiverCentre host a lot of events that attract people from other counties. A lot of non Ramsey County residents would be paying this tax, not just residents.

  8. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/31/2011 - 03:52 pm.

    The Vikings owners must drool when they look at the handout the Twins owners got.

    No wonder they say, “We would like to be held on the same playing field as the Twins.”

    It’s like pointing a finger at Target Field and saying, “Me, too!”

  9. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 08/31/2011 - 05:07 pm.

    I think the combnination of several things will doom any public financing, or at least I sure hope so.

    -The fact that stadiums are now billion dollar buildings, vs a few hundred million not that long ago.
    -The fact that the majority said “no new taxes, for anything”. Sure, some want to amend that to “no new taxes for anything except pro sports,” but somehow people are remembering the little matter of a shut-down, taking money from schools, cuts across the board, etc.
    -The fact that most people can’t affor to go to games, let alone get season tickets.
    -The fact that people recognize that a game on TV looks the same when it takes place 50, 500, or 1,500 miles away.
    -The fact that 6 teams have financed stadiums with no public funds- just because most cities are suckers, doesn’t mean we can’t hope to be number 7.

  10. Submitted by Larry Stark on 08/31/2011 - 07:51 pm.

    Planting a massive new stadium on that site would be a major transformational change for the local area and for the Twin Cities as a whole. There is no way that a handful of ambitious small-time politicians should be allowed to make a decision of that magnitude without extensive public hearings and public debate, of which there has been virtually none up to this point. The project also needs serious professional analyses of the on-going financial soundness of the project, as well as its long-term effects on taxes, the community and the environment.

    Especially in this difficult economic environment, I think it would be a seriously foolish move to trust that Tony Bennett or any of the other local proponents of this plan have any clear idea whether this kind of development would prove to be a boon or a bust for the area. The only thing certain about it is that, for those of us who like our city and our neighborhoods as they are and for whom phrases like “huge investments” and “robust private development” sound more like threats than promises, whatever is lost as a result of this project can never be regained.

  11. Submitted by David LaPorte on 09/01/2011 - 05:52 am.

    It’s unsettling that Commissioner Tony Bennett feels that the citizens of Ramsey County can’t be trusted to cast intelligent votes. Isn’t that how he got his job? Maybe he has a point.

    I also find it troubling that the Viking’s Lester Bagley is “clarifying” Governor Dayton’s remarks. Isn’t that the job of Dayton’s press secretary?

    I hear the train coming down the tracks.

  12. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/01/2011 - 07:57 am.

    You can bet the public would pick up most of the tab. Along with that bet it is assured the stadium wouldn’t be called the “The Citizens of Minnesota Stadium” Why would we want a billion dollar complex for 8 home games a year. There isn’t an honest assessment anywhere that says stadiums area good buy. No matter whose money would builds it the state gets the tax revenue. If they move, the public money will go to a better cause such as updating our 80-100 year old schools vs 30 year old stadiums. See yah Vikings!

  13. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/01/2011 - 09:02 am.

    #31 Greg — Thank you.

    If there is a ballot resolution, both the true cost and the fact that it will be borne by Ramsey County residents through a sales tax lasting many years must be clearly communicated by the resolution. It should also show how much of the State contribution will come from Ramsey County property taxes.

    If County residents don’t know the facts, they may unwittingly vote Yes for the resolution.

    If the County (and the Legislature?) plan on making another END-RUN around the law to get what they want and the people do not, they should all lose their jobs.

  14. Submitted by T J Simplot on 09/01/2011 - 10:15 am.

    Ms. Vetsch,

    You are making an assumption that no one from any other county would ever spend money in Ramsey County and thus not pay the sale tax. You are also assuming that every single resident of Ramsey County never leaves Ramsey County to make purchases thus making them the only people paying the tax

    The sales tax increase would be paid by ANYONE who purchases goods or services in Ramsey County, not just Ramsey County residents.

  15. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/01/2011 - 03:24 pm.

    As a resident of St. Paul, I already pay a total sales tax of 7.625%. I pay an extra 2.5% if I happen to buy a beer. (That’s 10.125% for those counting.)

    If Ramsey County Commissioners want me to pay another .5% to pay for a stadium for the Vikings to play a dozen games or so each year, they’d damn well better give me a vote on it.

    My own commissioner, Mr. Ortega, says he supports the plan for two reasons: jobs and cleaning up the site. That sounds like a species of bovine fecal matter to me, particularly if he thinks the jobs are going to go to Ramsey County residents. Construction jobs are one-shot, short term employment and likely will be filled from union hall benches around the metro. On-going stadium employment will be part-time, seasonal work, much if not most of which will simply replace jobs lost at the dome. The balance of the jobs projected by Mr. Wilf et al are likely anticipated spin-off jobs from development of the surrounding area. Again, a good percentage of those jobs likely will simply replace jobs lost in Minneapolis as a result of the Vikings’ relocation.

    As for cleaning up the site: that will happen whatever may de done with the site. A stadium, associated parking, etc., will limit the amount of cleanup required only because most of the land will be paved over.

    My share of the proposed $350 million county contribution is about $700. I’d prefer that the tax capacity be used, if at all, to pay for something a bit more important than a few football games each autumn.

Leave a Reply