Site choice, funding sources still unsettled as session looms
Despite the best efforts of advocates for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, a series of deadlines to advance a bill for a new professional football stadium have been undone by a steady stream of delays.
Disagreements about a location and local funding options squashed Gov. Mark Dayton’s suggestion to hold a special session at the end of November to pass a stadium bill. Then a series of scandals within Republican ranks, including the resignation of former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, took the Vikings off the list of priorities for nearly the entire month of December.
In an effort to bring the issue to the forefront yet again, Dayton set a deadline for local governments to submit their plans for a Vikings stadium in early January. After receiving about a dozen proposals, Dayton said last week that the most feasible options were two locations in Minneapolis: the Metrodome site and a spot on Linden Avenue near the Basilica of St. Mary. Despite what seemed like an effort to narrow the options, however, Dayton refused to declare the most vetted proposal and the team’s preferred site in Arden Hills dead.
Neither will legislators. “Despite the governor’s statements, I plan to continue evaluating all serious proposals on their individual merits and with the same concerns for Minnesota taxpayers,” Vikings Senate champion Julie Rosen said after a marathon stadium meeting on Wednesday night.
Rosen also alluded to what will be the latest in the series of setbacks for the Vikings stadium: the commencement of Session 2012. Legislators hope to complete the session as quickly and bloodlessly as possible as they head into the fall election season in newly drawn districts. “Crafting and voting on a stadium bill is an important goal for us,” Rosen said, “but it is one of several priorities this session.”
“When those new maps come out, folks are going to want to be driving around those districts,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers said on Thursday. “With anything we want to do this session … sooner is going to be way better than later.”
Remaining sites still troubled
Of the sites still in the mix for a stadium, Dayton showed a clear preference for Minneapolis’ downtown Linden Avenue location on Wednesday. But he added that all three sites are problematic enough that they could block a stadium solution by the Legislature in 2012. “No site’s sponsor,” Dayton said, “has adequately resolved the major unanswered questions in order to merit the approval to proceed.”
The team’s preferred site in Arden Hills has the most problems, he said. Ramsey County faces the difficult task of bypassing a voter referendum to increase local sales taxes or food and beverage taxes. GOP leaders of the Legislature have said they will not allow county officials to circumvent voter approval. Without a local partner, the state and Vikings would be on the hook to pay for the $1.1 billion proposed stadium in Arden Hills, with the Vikings bearing about $700 million of the cost. Team officials have said that’s not possible.
By Dayton’s account, the Vikings have also fallen short by failing to disclose how they plan to use an additional 170 acres on the Arden Hills site that would not be part of the stadium complex. “If the Vikings truly want to be in Arden Hills, they have thus far missed their opportunity to inspire decision-makers,” Dayton said.
The Metrodome site is the cheapest proposal of the three, coming in at $918 million. But the space will be problematic for the team once construction starts. The University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium is not a suitable alternative field for the Vikings while a new stadium is being built, Dayton said.
He added that the Metrodome location lacks the economic development potential of the Linden Avenue site, which is close to the Target Center, Target Field and the entertainment district downtown. All told, a stadium on the Linden site would cost just shy of $1 billion, including a contribution of nearly $400 million from the state.
But Dayton’s preferred site is battling opposition from officials at the nearby Basilica of St. Mary. Dayton has met with the Rev. John Bauer three times in the past week to discuss concerns about putting a professional football stadium so close to the landmark church. From heavy-duty construction and parking issues to the structural integrity of the church, Bauer said he has serious concerns about the stadium being built only a block and a half away.
“I don’t think we would agree that it’s as easy [to find a solution] as [Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission] Chairman [Ted] Mondale says,” he noted. Bauer added that legal action could be taken if their concerns aren’t addressed: “We would be foolhardy to take anything off the table.”
In addition, Minneapolis city officials plan to continue to push for the Metrodome site, which has the most support in the ranks of the City Council.
Funding roadblocks ahead?
Amid debate about the merits of each site, the proposals also offer no clear source of funding for the state’s share of the stadium.
Dayton reiterated on Wednesday his preference for installing electronic pulltabs in bars and restaurants across the state to pay for the state’s share of the proposal. By his estimate, e-pulltabs would provide the state $60 million a year, about twice what would be required to pay the debt service on the state share.
That option would also pass muster with the state’s 11 Indian tribes, which operate the state’s casinos. The tribes have said they would not sue the state over an expansion of electronic pulltabs, but the same cannot be said of a so-called racino bill, which would install slots in the state’s two horse racetracks.
“Passage of racino legislation to fund a new stadium is speculative,” Dayton said. “Even if it were to pass, several years of litigation in federal courts should be expected. Proceeds from racinos could not provide the assured revenue stream to back state-issued bonds until that litigation was resolved.”
But a racino bill is one of the most popular forms of expanded gambling, at least within the state Senate, sources say. By several insider counts, the chamber has the votes to pass racino off the floor if it came to a vote. Support for electronic pulltabs is less clear.
“If Dayton is going to pull back on [supporting] racino as a funding source now, that could complicate things heading into 2012,” a DFL lobbyist said. “People have been doing counts, building support. The same is not necessarily true for pulltabs.”
No deadlines, no pressure
This time, Dayton says he isn’t setting any public deadlines on a Vikings deal.
Many of his past deadlines have not been met, and Dayton said much of the work now lies with the Legislature, which has been particularly cool to stadium talks since last session.
Zellers said legislators need to have a single proposal to work through. “We need details,” he said at a press briefing on Thursday. “We need it nailed down.” He added: “For most Minnesotans, it’s not a priority.”
A frustrated Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said the Vikings lease is up on Feb. 1, and the team deserves an answer. “If we can’t get it done, let’s just say it,” he said. “I don’t know where the Vikings are going to play next year. I don’t know if they’re going to play in Minnesota.”
Dayton said the longer it takes to answer his questions, the less likely it is that a stadium will be approved by legislators in 2012.
“It is rumored that some legislators would prefer to postpone final action until 2013, because they want to avoid taking tough votes on a controversial project before next November’s election,” Dayton said. “The inability of stadium proponents to complete their own preparations gives cover to that delay.”