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On Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota Vikings staged a triumphal press conference to announce that the football team has reached a deal with Ramsey County to build a new $1 billion stadium on the site of a former munitions plant in Arden Hills.

Vikings stadium bill still an underdog

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Zygi Wilf (left), the owner of the Minnesota Vikings, and Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett announced an agreement on a new $1 billion stadium to be built in Arden Hills. The team would contribute $400 million, or nearly 40 percent of the total cost. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Team settles on location, but securing legislative approval for $300 million in public funds will be difficult

On Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota Vikings staged a triumphal press conference to announce that the football team has reached a deal with Ramsey County to build a new $1 billion stadium on the site of a former munitions plant in Arden Hills.

A video presentation highlighted gridiron glories of years past and closed with these words: “The future is now.” Legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant (resplendent in purple blazer) was on hand to address the news media, along with one-time “Purple People Eater” Jim Marshall. “Bring on Green Bay,” Grant pleaded. Dozens of fans showed up at the Ramsey County public works building in jerseys and horned helmets.

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf hailed the deal as the culmination of months of arduous work negotiating the details. “We’re going to bring back the old traditions of tailgating and a full-day experience,” Wilf told the crowd. “This is what our fans want, and this is what everybody loves to experience. … We believe we have selected the ideal site here in Arden Hills for a new stadium in Minnesota.”

The announcement did mark a milestone in the multiyear campaign to garner support for a new publicly subsidized stadium for the football team. It’s the first time during that process that a Vikings-approved site location and local government funding partner have been secured.

Under the deal worked out by the Vikings and Ramsey County Commissioners Tony Bennett and Rafael Ortega, the team would put up $407 million – or nearly 40 percent of the total cost. Ramsey County would chip in an additional $350 million through the imposition of a 0.5 percent countywide sales tax increase. The state would contribute the final $300 million through sources such as a tax on sports memorabilia and lottery proceeds.

It’s the latter leg of that funding triangle that ultimately may prove particularly problematic. With the end of the legislative session less than two weeks out and no end in sight to the standoff between the Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton over how to close the state’s $5 billion budget deficit, there seems to be little enthusiasm for funneling $300 million to a professional sports team.

“I think it’s a hard sell,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “We don’t even have the main job of the Legislature done yet, which is a budget. … I’m disappointed to see the proposal right now.”

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, isn’t keen on the proposal’s chances either. “I don’t think they’re very good,” said Thompson, who is strongly opposed to public funding for a Vikings stadium. “There has not been a groundswell of support in the Legislature.”

Stadium legislation has been introduced by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. Their proposals steer clear of general fund dollars but would raise roughly $30 million annually through new taxes. Neither proposal has received a committee hearing. But that’s not surprising given the lack of certainty until this week over which site and funding plan the Vikings supported.

Lanning says he will study the details of the stadium proposal and determine whether changes need to be made to the legislation. He is also concerned about infrastructure costs associated with the Arden Hills site. An analysis by the Minnesota Department of Transportation released this week determined that road improvements necessitated by the project would cost $175 million to $240 million – significantly more than estimated by Ramsey County officials. “It’s not just a simple matter of the Vikings having reached an agreement with a local partner,” Lanning said. “That’s very significant, but the state has to help make that happen.”

Rosen is also concerned about the infrastructure costs. “That’s absolutely a problem,” she said. “The governor and I and the Legislature have been very firm and consistent about our message: $300 million is our commitment. If the infrastructure is an issue then we’re going to have to somehow fit that into the $300  million.”

Stadium issues don’t typically split along neat partisan political lines. Rosen’s proposal, for instance, has two DFL co-sponsors. Critics from the left and right have made passing such legislation notoriously difficult. Schizophrenic public attitudes on public funding of stadiums for professional sports franchises further complicate the issue for politicians. A recent Star Tribune poll, for example, found that 74 percent of respondents were opposed to spending taxpayer dollars for a new Vikings stadium. By contrast, 55 percent expressed approval for the public expenditures used to build Target Field, the Minnesota Twins baseball stadium that opened last year.

Before the announcement of the Ramsey County deal, there was little impetus for lobbyists to seriously pursue the issue with legislators. That means that tallying any kind of a head count in terms of support or opposition is difficult. But in the days ahead, the Vikings’ squadron of lobbyists will be working overtime.

Perhaps the greatest asset that the Vikings have is strong support from Gov. Mark Dayton for building a new stadium. He has repeatedly stated that a “people’s stadium” is on his agenda. “It has to work for the people of Minnesota,” Dayton reiterated on Monday. “It has to be an economically successful project for our state in terms of the jobs it can [create] and the economic benefits from it.”

Some lobbyists who have worked on the issue believe that if Gov. Tim Pawlenty had been willing to push for a Vikings stadium last year, it likely would have gotten done. Dayton’s interest in the issue could mean that when serious budget negotiations get under way – whether that’s next week or next month – the stadium could be in the mix as a bargaining chip.

“We have to see the end of a budget resolution,” Lanning said. “It has to be in sight. If that’s not in sight, I don’t know how we can move this forward.”

Ramsey County Commissioner Bennett served in the House for more than a decade. He points out that the final days of a legislative session are famously unpredictable. “I know how those last days come, and I k­now how those last bills somehow get adopted that were never going to make it,” Bennett said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I’ve always got great hope that something will come up there.”

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