Vikings encouraged, stadium questions remain

The Vikings are seeing progress for a new stadium in Ramsey County, but there are still site and financial questions being investigated. Those will have to find resolution in the next 30 days or so for a stadium bill.

The debate over a new stadium has been on the table of Minnesota politicians for almost 15 years. From the time Red McCombs bought the Vikings in 1998, debate over replacing the Metrodome has been a priority of the team. When McCombs sold the team to Zygi Wilf and his investment group, he cited the lack of belief a stadium deal would get completed as his primary reason for wanting out.

After courting Anoka County four years ago, only to have a proposal fall through and the county, the proposed stadium at an abandoned munitions plant in Arden Hills in Ramsey County on the east side of the Mississippi River has the Vikings excited that, after years of trying to get a stadium deal done, the light may be visible at the end of the tunnel.

"We've got a lot of pieces in place," said Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of stadium development. "We're pushing things forward. The Ramsey County Board approved the resolution 6-1 to move forward with the due diligence study to collaborate with the Vikings to get to the bottom of the site to see if there's a deal that can be done."

The Arden Hills site is in good proximity to both the fan base and the major arterial roads needed to get large crowds of people in and out of the stadium. The Anoka County site didn't already have that in place.

"We love the site," Bagley said. "It's 10 miles from the Metrodome. It's about the same from downtown St. Paul. It's right on three-lane 35W, but there are some questions about transportation and infrastructure, how you get 65,000 people in and out of there. There are some questions about environmental issues related to the site. That's what this due diligence period is about, digging into that and getting those answers. We want to make sure this works for the Vikings, it works for Ramsey County and Arden Hills and it works for the state."

Hennepin County has enjoyed an increase in downtown Minneapolis business thanks to the construction of a new Twins stadium and Bagley said he believes that Ramsey County is intrigued by the prospect of having the stadium and the ancillary spending it would bring to their side of the Mississippi.

"The big opportunity and, I think, the excitement over on that side of the river, is they have an opportunity to get a multiuse facility in their county," Bagley said. "There have been 77 million people through the Metrodome. There's a chance to get one million people a year coming to their county, with the economic activity that that brings – and creating job activity is significant. I think that's what they're excited about. This property has been sitting there for a long time so they have a chance to get some infrastructure investment that they need to move people through the county, as well as take a look at the environmental issues."

In recent years, one of the biggest hurdles has been the governor of the state. Former wrestler Jesse Ventura pontificated that he wouldn't give a dime to billionaire McCombs to build a stadium. Almost as hard-nosed was Tim Pawlenty, whose mantra of no tax increases (although he found ways to call tax increases on things like liquor and tobacco "user fees" rather than state tax increases) was a formidable and consistent roadblock to getting any stadium deal done.

It would appear that the new governor, Democrat Mark Dayton, is a far cry from what Ventura and Pawlenty postured. Bagley said the Vikings have been very encouraged by what they've heard from both Gov. Dayton and legislative leaders in their willingness to get a stadium deal finalized to assure the Vikings will remain in Minnesota.

"The Governor wants to get this done," Bagley said. "He's appointed Ted Mondale, who's not just talking about the issue and being a point person on the public relations side. He's actually trying to broker something. He's trying to bring the sides together – the team, the state, the local pieces – to try to get something. It is moving in the right direction. We're going to have a good hard run at it this year, and we're encouraged by the progress and the leadership of the Governor, Ted Mondale and the Republicans in the Legislature. It's a bipartisan effort, and we're trying to push the pieces forward so we can position to tie them together here in the not-too-distant future."

Bagley said everyone hopes to get answers in the next 30 days to the questions that have arisen, including the extent of potential infrastructure improvements, potential environmental issues and what the cost would be to mitigate those. The organization has hired traffic and environmental engineers to examine the site and added that, seeing as the Wilfs are developers, they have a good feel for the kind of needs the land would have.

Bagley said the biggest issue has been a compressed timeline trying to get preliminary cost figures done before the Legislature will approve a stadium bill. He said they have been working non-stop on getting answers to the questions that may pose hurdles to completing the stadium process and said he thinks they are making significant headway.

"There's been significant pressure on us to come up with a site and a plan," Bagley said. "You can ask Ted Mondale. His view is that they've put unfair pressure on the Vikings to come up with a site in short order. Our challenge is (that) it's not just the location, it's a financial contribution. We can't make a financial contribution just appear. It has to be a willing partner and a willingness to invest in this project if they want a multipurpose stadium in their city, their county or their community. There's got to be more than just a site. There's got to be an investment. So that's been the hard part. But certainly Ramsey County is a great site and there's a willing partner. We've made less progress, frankly, over the years on the west side of the river (in downtown Minneapolis)."

Asked what he is most encouraged by, Bagley said that the sheer size of Ramsey County would allow it to be a partner in the project. When the Twins stadium stalled in the Legislature, Hennepin County stepped up and took over the financing of the project. While that isn't expected from the Ramsey County project – the state and the county are both expected to contribute to the project cost – Bagley said he is encouraged by the county's interest in partnering up to build a stadium. They have seen what the economic impact of the X-cel Energy Center has had on downtown St. Paul and believe that is helping push an ambitious project like a new NFL football stadium.

"It's the willingness of the county, the second-largest county in the state," Bagley said. "They've got the financial wherewithal for sure, but do they have the will and the support to do this? I think once we answer all these questions about what exactly are we talking about for costs, those things will hopefully come together. Then the roof issue is the only other thing."

When the Anoka County proposal was first unveiled, it entailed much more than simply a stadium. It was a project that would include hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses that would bring in people when the Vikings weren't using the stadium. Given the massive size of the Arden Hills property, a similar project could eventually be undertaken – similar to what the Patriots did when they built their new stadium in suburban Boston.

"I think what we're looking at is to solve the stadium issue and I think the uncertainty of the economy weighs on decisions to invest," Bagley said. "But clearly the examples (of) suburban sites have worked with New England being a good example with ‘Patriot Place' and ancillary developments, so there's opportunity. There's also a need up there. We talked to the folks at National Sports Center in Blaine. For all the soccer tournaments that they have up there, there's a need for hospitality infrastructure, hotels and restaurants. I think there's an interest. Ramsey County has expressed an interest in seeing a first-class hotel at or near the site. When you have a million people at minimum coming through in a year, you're going to need a hospitality infrastructure."

Despite being under a tight timeline – the Legislature meets only until mid-May – Bagley said the Vikings are working hard to get as much information as the decision-makers will need to make an informed decision. But, he added that the prospects are looking as good now as they ever have and that, after years of being stonewalled at the state and county level, they may finally have a viable solution to their problem.

"That's part of what we would potentially see," Bagley said of the long-term plans for the sight. "But, first things first. We have to see if we can answer the questions that are out there, secure the site and solve the stadium issue. I think the Wilfs, being developers, would like to see the site thrive, but that's I think a discussion for down the road."

The stadium dilemma is far from over for the Vikings, but the road they speak of doesn't appear as rough today as it did prior to the collapse of the Metrodome roof.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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