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New Vikings stadium still generating controversy

Mike Mosedale//August 8, 2014//

New Vikings stadium still generating controversy

Mike Mosedale//August 8, 2014//

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Sharon Stiteler, a Minneapolis birding enthusiast, is among those calling on the Minnesota Vikings and the  Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to address concerns that the new stadium will be hazardous for migrating birds. (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)
Sharon Stiteler, a Minneapolis birding enthusiast, is among those calling on the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to address concerns that the new stadium will be hazardous for migrating birds. (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

In the months since crews began work on the new $1 billion home for the Minnesota Vikings, the team and its many fans likely assumed that the political tussles, legal challenges and rancor engendered by the project would disappear, just like that mountain of demolished rubble that was once the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

You know what they say about assumptions, right?

While the ink has long since dried on the myriad deals to build and fund the “People’s Stadium,” it turns out, many state lawmakers, public officials, advocacy groups and private citizens are still inclined to let their grievances rip.

Over the past two weeks, separate issues — one involving the workplace culture of the Vikings, the other involving the fate of the avian migrants — have sparked a resurgence of stadium-related criticism.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he felt compelled to wade back into the fray after the Vikings announced a two game suspension of their special teams coach Mike Priefer for making anti-gay statements, a punishment that Dibble regarded as far too lenient.

In a July 25 letter to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf co-signed by 13 other legislators, Dibble demanded the Vikings release the full results of its investigation into Priefer’s “admitted homophobic statements,” including the coach’s call to “round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”

Priefer’s remarks came to light as a result of claims made by former Viking punter Chris Kluwe, who publicly championed the state’s gay marriage law, which Dibble authored.

Dibble characterized Priefer’s statement “as shockingly out of bounds” and “tantamount to calling for the genocide of all LGBT people.” He then circled back to the stadium financing, pointedly noting that taxpayers are picking up almost a half billion dollars of the stadium costs.

Reached by phone Thursday, Dibble said the Vikings had yet to respond directly to his letter. However, he said he inferred from the organization’s statements to media that “they’re not going to do anything, the matter is behind them, Mike Preifer is a good man.”

No Super Bowl sweeteners?

So what’s next?

“What do I have available to me, another strongly-worded letter?” Dibble responded. “I will just remind everyone that the NFL is coming to Minnesota in 2018 with the Super Bowl and they want some tax breaks and other considerations. When a team tolerates a call for the genocidal destruction of members of our community, I think the inclination to hand over a lot of tax money becomes questionable.”

As the Vikings’ handling of the Priefer/Kluwe flap provided critics like Dibble with an opening to reopen the old controversy over stadium funding, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority became the subject of a separate uproar after it announced that it would not use “bird-friendly” glass for the new stadium.

When the schematics for the new stadium were initially unveiled, Audubon Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and many rank-and-file birders expressed concerns that its signature characteristic — the vast expanses of glass — would prove deadly to birds.

The Vikings and the MSFA tamped down the criticisms for nearly a year by regularly meeting with officials from Audubon Minnesota and agreeing to certain lighting restrictions during the spring and fall bird migrations.

But last month, the MSFA announced it would not use a special “fritted” glass to reduce the hazard of bird collisions, saying “the stadium design and budget will not accommodate the fritted glass being proposed.”

That has since prompted sharp rebukes from Audubon Minnesota (which called the stadium design “a death trap” and subsequently recruited more 60,000 people to sign letters of protest) and the Minneapolis City Council (which has since passed a resolution demanding the Vikings and the MSFA go with a bird friendly design).

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she is appalled by the MSFA’s decision. Kahn, who authored the 2009 law that mandates bird-friendly lighting for state-owned and leased buildings, said she regrets not including a fritted glass requirement in that legislation. However, Kahn added, that the state has subsequently adopted such rules in its sustainability guidelines for state properties.

In a statement, the MSFA said those guidelines don’t apply to the stadium because they were enacted after the stadium was designed.

“I would understand the objection if the guidelines came out after the stadium was built or the materials had been purchased. But I think it’s absolutely insane for them not to just meet the criteria at this point,” responded Kahn. “Do the Vikings really want Audubon Minnesota volunteers picking up hundreds of dead birds on game days?

Calling all birders

In the wake of the MSFA decision, Sharon Stiteler, a Minneapolis birding guru and author, has been urging fellow birders to weigh in. Stiteler, who issued her call to action on her popular Birdchick blog, said she has repeatedly called and emailed the MSFA but has received no response.

“Birders are upset,” Stiteler said. “When the stadium design was first introduced, they were ready to get on the Vikings case about all the glass. Then Audubon said, ‘Hey, why don’t we work with the Vikings and Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority and see if they can be reasonable?’ That went on for a year and a half. Then all the sudden the MSFA says, ‘No one is forcing us to do this, so we won’t.’”

Stiteler said she is skeptical that budgetary constraints are the impediment to making the switch to fritted glass, which would add about a million dollars to the overall project cost. “I heard someone say on ESPN, ‘The Vikings spend more than that on jock straps. Why is this such a problem?” she said.

While it is impossible to know exactly how lethal the new stadium could be for birds, Stiteler has no doubts that the number will run into the thousands annually. Building collisions are among the leading human-related causes of bird deaths in North America, according to some estimates, second only to habitat destruction.

In the case of the Vikings stadium, Stiteler says the risks are amplified both by the glass heavy design elements and proximity to the Mississippi River, which is used as a migratory corridor by about 40 percent of birds in the eastern U.S.

She said songbirds, which typically migrate at night, are most at risk for such building collisions and expressed particular worries about the toll on relatively rare species such as the golden winged warbler.

Stiteler also expects that some predator birds, such as Cooper’s hawks and peregrine falcons, would crash into the un-fritted windows while chasing prey. While bald eagles also soar in the vicinity, Stiteler said a public relations fiasco involving the national symbol crashing into the billion dollar stadium is not likely, mainly because eagles are more inclined to feed on carrion than engage in risky high speed chases.

See you in court?

While the MSFA decision appears to be final, Stiteler said the issue may not be dead, particularly if a wildlife organization goes to court. This winter, she noted, the National Guard scotched its plans to erect a wind turbine on Lake Eerie after a legal threat from the American Bird Conservancy.

The ABC has already weighed in on the Vikings stadium via a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, contending that the new stadium will cause the “avoidable and unnecessary deaths of birds legally protected by federal law.”

Asked whether the ABC will sue, ABC spokesman Robert Johns suggested that remains a possibility.

“Litigation is never going to be our first choice,” Johns said by email. “The problem will be if endangered species are killed and then you have a whole other ballgame. The paradigm shifts dramatically because that breaks federal law and it would have been a foreseeable outcome of the stadium build, so then litigation/lawsuits are viable.”

For his part, Sen. Dibble said he has heard “from a bunch of constituents” concerned about the bird issue and the Vikings’ response, which he said is reminiscent to the team’s handling of the Priefer flap.

“It’s just a culture of tone deafness and arrogance and disregard,” Dibble said. “And if they’re cranky about legislators weighing in on their business, then they should not have accepted a half a billion dollars in public money for their shiny new stadium.”

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