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Final stadium approval: A deal few will love, with a partner most don’t trust

Beyond Vikings games, authority officials stress that the “people’s stadium” will be home to high school and college sports and wintertime runners and roller-skaters.

The Vikings expect to generate $100 million over the years from those licenses, which, of course, will make attending a Vikings game at the people’s stadium a prohibitive expense for many people.
Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority signed off Thursday evening on a deal that few will love, with a partner — the Minnesota Vikings — that most don’t seem to trust.

Personal seat licenses, ranging in price from $500 to $10,000, are certain to be the most controversial aspect of the deal that marks a huge step toward ground-breaking for the $975 million football stadium.

But then, there’s little that won’t offend many about the final deal for the stadium, which will be built with a $498 million contribution from the public. Of that money, $348 million is to come from the state and $150 million from the city of Minneapolis.

Dayton, too, unhappy with specifics

Even Gov. Mark Dayton, who pushed mightily to get the deal through the Legislature, was holding his nose.

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“For most Minnesotans, this will look like a questionable deal because the economics of professional sports are questionable,” he said.

Dayton, who pushed the project as a “people’s stadium,” has been particularly upset by the issue of personal seat licenses. In this case, to buy a season ticket in 75 percent of the stadium, spectators will have to pay for the privilege — up to $10,000 for the best seats in the house, down to $500 for the seats farther from the action. Those fees are in addition to the actual cost of the ticket.

The Vikings expect to generate $100 million over the years from those licenses, which, of course, will make attending a Vikings game at the people’s stadium a prohibitive expense for many people. If Vikings fans balk at the seat licensing aspect of this deal, the Vikings are on the hook for any amount less than $100 million.

Dayton said that “one dollar for a personal seat license is one dollar too much,” but he was quick to add that such arrangements are price of doing business with a National Football League team.

But even as he grumbled about the economics of pro sports and personal seat licenses, Dayton insisted that the deal will look a lot better “when thousands of people are working to build” the stadium. And it will look better still, he said, when development around the stadium moves from drawing boards to reality.

Dayton OK, though, with deal’s ‘totality’

“If you look at the totality of this,” Dayton said, “we’re going to get a good deal.”

It was never in doubt that the five-member sports authority was going to sign off on this deal. (Highlights of the full deal are here (PDF), and the full texts are here (PDF),  and here (PDF).

In fact, after so many years of haggling, the signing of the documents that set in motion a process that will lead to ground-breaking in mid-November, the signing of this crucial agreement was quick and quiet.

Three members of the authority — one member was absent because of work obligations — heard a quick summary of the terms of the agreement from Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the authority. Only one question was asked.

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When the vote was taken, all four approved.  (Members of the authority all had worked on all or parts of the document for months. The vote was a mere formality. )

Not surprisingly, given the angst and anger that always has surrounded the stadium, there was outrage over not only the vote, but the process.

Protests after the fact

In this case, those who had come to protest the deal didn’t have a chance to comment until after the deal was done.

Kelm Helgen defended the vote-first, comment-later order of doing business by saying that throughout the legislative process there had been numerous public hearings. This explanation did not impress many of those who had come to dissent.

Three of those protesting are among the 35 candidates running for mayor. Bob “Again”Carney, Captain Jack Sparrow (he of the pirate’s outfit, complete with plastic sword) and YouTube “star” Jeff Wagner all expressed their disgust in colorful ways.

But in this case, Wagner was the most, ummm, imaginative.

He came to the front of the room, his neck red. He sat at a table facing the commissioners. Then, he took off his shoes and put them on the table.

This action from the clearly agitated Wagner was enough to bring a security guard to the front of the room to stand near the mayoral candidate.

Wagner, who wasn’t wearing socks, wasn’t clear as to what the symbolism of the shoe removal was. He did leave them with the authority, saying something to the effect that since they’re taking everything from the public, they might as well have his shoes, too. 

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He also was outraged, he said, because he is a smoker and the state has raised the tobacco tax.

Beyond leaving shoes on the table, there really wasn’t much new those protesting could say.

Legislators weigh in late

The three unusual mayoral candidates weren’t the only politicians trying to have a say on this pivotal day in the stadium saga.

Thursday afternoon,  members of the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Sports Facilities met for the first time in half a year.

Rep. Joe Atkins, a DFLer, expressed his disgust for the lack of meetings by that body.

“We’ve got a billion-dollar project before us that we’re supposed to be providing oversight for,’’ Atkins said.

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In his mind, meetings — perhaps monthly — should be a minimal responsibility of that group.

Rep. Bob Barrett, a Republican stadium foe, left the meeting and told reporters he was still looking for a way to tweak the stadium legislation.

But Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a DFL who co-chairs the legislative commission, said he didn’t see how it would be possible for the Legislature to change the deal with the Vikings.

Champion did say that “if someone wanted to just voluntarily pay more” that probably would be acceptable. But he doesn’t expect the Vikings to say they want to pay more.

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The concern of many around the deal, though, is just what loopholes the Wilf family, the Vikings’ owners, will seek in an effort to pay less. 

Even before the Wilf family was pilloried by a New Jersey judge at the conclusion of a long civil case, there was little trust from public figures for the Wilfs.  Those working on this deal for the public don’t expect the negotiating ever to really end with the Wilfs.

The trust issue is just one area that makes this stadium project dramatically different from the construction of the baseball park, which became Target Field. To the surprise of many, the Pohlad family, owner of the Twins, spent millions beyond the team’s obligations to add extras to the ballpark.

No one expects such behavior from the Wilfs.

Even the governor has made it clear that he doesn’t have the highest trust levels in Vikings ownership, adding that the state doesn’t get to pick who owns the team.

Authority makes its case

Still, Kelm-Helgen put a positive spin on the arrangement. She noted that although the Vikings will use the stadium for 10 — “or hopefully 12” — weeks a season, the $8.5 million in rent, plus an additional $1.5 million they will pay annually for capital improvements, will cover 70 percent of the operational costs of the building.

That means, she said, the Vikings actually are “heavily subsidizing” many amateur sporting events that will be held at the new stadium.

Kelm-Helgen vowed that high school sports and college sports teams will be able to use the new stadium much as they’ve used the Dome, meaning at little cost. Additionally, she said, individuals who have used the Dome for wintertime running and roller skating will continue to be welcome.

Beyond the low-ticket, high-use objectives basic to a “people’s stadium,” Kelm-Helgen said the stadium will be attractive for large, national events. Revenues from those events, including concessions and advertising, will go to the stadium authority.

“The agreement has put the authority in a strong position,’’ she said.

But just in case, it appears the authority has access to several lawyers, although not as many as the Wilfs.