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.
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.”