Senator says Vikings should help Minneapolis narrow stadium choices

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Vikings, hoping to flee their longtime home in downtown Minneapolis for a new suburban stadium, got a message Tuesday from an influential state senator: Not so fast.

At a joint hearing of two state Senate committees, team executives and Ramsey County leaders touted their plan to put a US$1.1 billion stadium on a former Army ammunition plant in Arden Hills. State lawmakers – who will make the final decision on whether and where to build a stadium – also got a pitch from Minneapolis’ two top officials about three likely cheaper places to build downtown.

Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson also dangled an existing city sales tax to help pay for the stadium – a local share that Ramsey County currently lacks.

One suggested location is the current Metrodome site, which Rybak said city leaders prefer. But he said they’ve been reluctant to discard the other two, which are on the other side of downtown, because Vikings officials won’t meet with them or express a preference.

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“The Vikings have chosen, and that’s their choice to back only the Arden Hills site,” Rybak said. “We would like to go back to the table with them.”

That prompted Sen. Julianne Ortman, chairwoman of the Senate Taxes Committee, to encourage Vikings executives to sit down with Minneapolis stadium boosters. “I for one think it’s in your best interest to help us narrow down these sites,” said Ortman, a Republican from Chanhassen.

Lester Bagley, a Vikings vice-president, said they would. But he stressed again that team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf are interested in what they see as a greater “fan experience” offered by the 430-acre Arden Hills site, including room for team practice and recreation facilities, adjacent parking and tailgating, and space for related retail, hotel and restaurant development.

“We worked hard to find a local partner, as we were instructed to do,” Bagley said of the team’s agreement with Ramsey County. “We think it’s important we stick with a local partner that sticks with us.”

The three Minneapolis proposals each offer a lower estimated price tag: The plan to build at the Metrodome site is pegged to cost $895 million, while the two proposals west of downtown near the Twins’ Target Field each weigh in at a little more than $1 billion. However, Zygi Wilf has vowed to contribute less money to a Minneapolis stadium than he would to one in Arden Hills.

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One issue with the Ramsey County site is that no current plans are on the table for the county to contribute to the total cost. Gov. Mark Dayton last month nixed a plan from Ramsey County Board members to raise $350 million with a half-cent local sales tax increase after legislative leaders told him they lacked the votes to overrule a county referendum widely expected to kill the tax.

With the Vikings pledging $425 million for the Arden Hills stadium, that would leave the state on the hook for as much as $650 million – a figure Ortman said is too high.

“I think that’s going to have a hard time being taken seriously by legislators, given the current economic realities,” Ortman said.

Senators are holding another hearing next Tuesday on how to pay for the stadium, and Ortman told Ramsey County officials to come prepared with new plans for how to contribute to the cost.

In Minneapolis, Rybak said officials could divert existing city sales taxes that fund operations at the Minneapolis Convention Center to help build the Vikings stadium.

Options under consideration for the state share of costs include tax revenue from an expansion of gambling, and a host of game-related sales taxes. The Vikings have suggested diverting income tax collections on both Vikings and visiting-team players, team officials, and sales taxes on purchases in the new stadium.

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The hearing at the state capitol stretched nearly four hours. Some fans pleaded for a stadium solution while other residents decried what they said would be a frivolous use of public dollars in a time of chronic state budget deficits.

The Vikings have pushed for a replacement for the Metrodome for nearly a decade. Bagley said the Vikings trail the NFL in nearly every measure of stadium revenue, and that the Metrodome is no longer capable of hosting a Superbowl or an NCAA Final Four tournament.

The team’s push has escalated in recent months, with their Metrodome lease due to expire at the end of the season. Bagley said Tuesday that the Vikings would not sign a lease extension unless a deal for a new stadium was in place.

Sen. Barb Goodwin, a Democrat whose suburban district includes the Arden Hills site, asked Bagley if that meant the owners would move the team to another city.

“Not at all,” Bagley said. “We’re just saying we won’t have a lease.”