Vikings Stadium Plan? Obama vs. Pawlenty

Evan Weiner Contributor
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Zygi Wilf’s National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings franchise didn’t win the big game this year, in fact Wilf’s team did not qualify for the big game in South Florida as Wilf’s Vikings lost to the finest team that Louisiana taxpayers could fund, Tom Benson’s New Orleans Saints.

Benson used some of the $23.5 million in state aid he got last July to, presumably, pay for players and could use some of the $23.5 million in state aid due next July to extend Drew Brees’ contract. The Louisiana handouts will be capped at $6 million starting in 2011.

Wilf is still in the hunt to play in the “Big Game” however. You see Wilf’s lease at the Metrodome in Minneapolis is done following the 2011 season and Wilf wants a new stadium somewhere in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market and is planning to pitch the Minnesota legislature in this session to get a stadium built or Wilf’s Vikings may have a new home out of state.

Wilf may come up big this time. Vikings ownership thinks the federal stimulus money might be available for the project, which would put Wilf at odds with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who is not a stimulus fan. Minnesota’s capital St. Paul would become a battleground in a way, President Obama’s stimulus plan, the Recovery Act of 2009, versus a lame duck governor who has Presidential aspirations in 2012 and would like to be the Republican nominee.

In December 2009, Pawlenty said there would be no new taxes to pay for a new Vikings stadium. Yet in the past week, Pawlenty seems to have changed his tune. Pawlenty may not like stimulus money but he has another idea that does involve taxpayers’ money.

Pawlenty thinks funds generated from a new Minnesota lottery could generate enough money to fund construction for a new football stadium. Pawlenty has also thrown out another idea, tax increment financing, which allows developers to pay less money than normal property taxes as long as that money is funneled back into the development project.

There are no proposals on the table though at this point.

Minnesota legislators have seen this act before and have responded in kind by finding public money for stadiums and arenas for more than a half century. The city of Minneapolis put up some $8.5 million in mid-1950s dollars to build Metropolitan Stadium for the minor league baseball team, the Minneapolis Millers. The stadium opened in 1956 as a minor league park but was upgraded when Calvin Griffith moved his Washington Senators to Minnesota after the 1961 season. “The Met” was enough of a lure for Lamar Hunt’s new American Football League that Hunt and his partners awarded an AFL franchise to Minnesota, but somehow the National Football League got to the Minnesota ownership and convinced them to jump leagues and start in 1961.

The National Football League and the American Football League merged on June 8, 1966 and one of the merger conditions was that every NFL stadium had to have a seating capacity of more than 50,000. Congress approved the merger in October 1966 and that started the clock ticking to get a new football facility built for the Vikings as “the Met” had just 48,700 chairs.

Minnesota ownership decided not to renew the lease at “the Met” and actively looked at other options including a move to Los Angeles when the lease ended in 1981.

In December 1979, construction started on the $68 million domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis that would house theMinnesota Twins and Vikings although neither team seemed too happy with the building. Twins ownership was unhappy with revenues generated inside the building but Griffith negotiated a bad deal in the 1970s, which allowed the Vikings ownership to keep a lion share of luxury box money. Additionally, Griffith didn’t get enough concession money. In the late 1990s, Don Beaver attempted to move the Twins franchise to a publicly funded stadium in Greensboro, N. C., if voters said yes.

The voters rejected the stadium plan in 1998.

On May 26 2006, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty signed legislation to build a new baseball park for the Twins. Hennepin County taxpayers would fund most of the costs for the new building through a 0.15 cent sales tax. The fiscally conservative Pawlenty gave the go ahead for the tax hike, which was designed to raise about $392 million; Minnesota’s ownership would pick up the rest of the tab which is about $140 million more.

On May 24, 2006, three days after the legislature said yes to spending $392 for a baseball park, Minnesota taxpayers were again asked to dig into their pockets to fund a football stadium for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The university is picking up 52 percent of the costs of the $288 million stadium while the state is paying for the rest.

The state legislature also picked up the costs of Minneapolis’ arena that was constructed in the late 19880s through private money. The National Basketball Association gave Minneapolis a franchise in the late 1980s but the team owners, Marvin Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner could not swing the $32.5 million entry fee into the NBA and the cost of the building, which was over $100 million. The legislature gave the approval for the city of Minneapolis to take over the building in 1995.

In 1997, the National Hockey League was looking for expansion cities. St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman got a franchise by promising to build a new taxpayers funded arena in the city. The NHL granted St/ Paul a franchise as long as the arena was built. Minnesota taxpayers put up about half of the $130 million cost of the building.

In 1965, Minnesota taxpayers put up money to build an arena in Bloomington next to “the Met” and got an NHL expansion teamin 1967. That team, the North Stars left in 1993 for Dallas. One of the reasons the North Stars franchise moved? The arena was not adequate for an NHL team.

Minnesota has spent an enormous amount of public funds on athletic facilities, probably more than a billion dollars when infrastructure and debt service costs are added. That is the price for being a major league area.

The Obama versus Pawlenty 2012 President race may never play out, but a mini version of the 2012 Presidential campaign could be taking place this winter and spring in the St. Paul statehouses and at the end of the day, Zygi Wilf’s Minnesota Vikings, a team that has never won the Super Bowl, may finally win the big game, which in this case is a new stadium with all of the bells and whistles of revenue producing luxury boxes, club seats, in-stadium restaurants and stores and lots of concession money.

That is better than winning a Super Bowl.

Evan Weiner is a radio/TV commentator, author, columnist and lecturer on “The Politics of Sports Business.” Evan spoke at the George Bush Presidential Library in Aug 2007 about the topic before an international audience.