Column: Vikings will go where they're wanted

While some contend Ramsey County is being used as a pawn, that county is the only one stepping up, making it a viable leader/savior to keep the Vikings in Minnesota.

The quick ascent of the Arden Hills location for a new Vikings stadium has come at the right time. The lower skyline of western Minneapolis no longer includes the inflated bubble of the Metrodome – a fact that history may view as a blessing for those who wanted to keep the NFL in Minnesota. From the timing perspective, it couldn't have come at a better time.

To any intelligent observer, the State of Minnesota has never invested in a multi-use football stadium. You can say what you want about the Metrodome – at least all seats point toward the action, which couldn't be said for baseball – but it was built on the cheap with a guarantee in pocket from the NFL to the State Legislature that the Vikings wouldn't leave for 30 years. They didn't. But, time is up.

Counties contending for a stadium site has been a quest that has stretched throughout the outer limits of the Twin Cities metro area. The Anoka County proposal perked ears and garnered artist conceptions as visual proof into the minds of fans of what could be done – the dream mansion as opposed to the tricked-out double-wide the Vikings currently play in. But Anoka County wasn't the only site being thrown around in stadium debate overt the years of discontent for the Vikings. There was property about a mile as the pigeon flies from the current Metrodome site that was considered – the open property where the wreckage of the 35-W bridge collapse was dragged to. That came and went quietly. There was a proposal to move the stadium to Shakopee as part of a racino complex near the Canterbury Downs race track that would combine football and gambling. But, given the NFL's buried history with the Mob during its formative years ("Ken Burns Football" would be a PBS documentary that would open many eyes), getting in bed with the gambling industry never gotten off the ground.

No state or city has ever gotten a better deal when it comes to hosting an NFL football team. I saw games at both Metropolitan Stadium and the Metrodome and can say without fear of argument that both places were little more than dumpsites. Met Stadium was an expanded baseball park that was intended to seat about 20,000. It was built for baseball, which is why the football footprint forced both teams to be on the same sideline. How there weren't blowout sideline fights is beyond me. Had two teams been on the same sideline today, it might be MMA on the sidelines every week. In my mind, the Metrodome still looks like it hasn't been finished and, in many ways, it hasn't.

The numbers speak for themselves. The cost to replace the eighth-inch roof of the Metrodome ($18 million) is more than 25 percent of the cost to build the stadium ($68 million). While ongoing costs have factored in, the state has got by for 30 years on the pro-rated cost of $2.2 million a year – the price tag for a veteran backup quarterback. That's not too shabby. It was a Golden Ticket deal and, now that it's time to pay up, it is a grievance long overdue.

What the Vikings have with their current opportunity is a county willing to chip in significantly on the cost. Hennepin County won't do that. It already did with the Twins. There are many who say the Anoka County proposal would have been an act of futility, since the growth of the Twin Cities metro area has gone south and west, not north. The county wouldn't be large enough for residents to help absorb a local-share cost. Ramsey County is a different story. It is the second-largest county in the state and recent discussion of a half-cent sales tax being imposed to pay the county share of a new stadium has given the project legitimacy.

The surprising byproduct of that has been opposition from the Minneapolis downtown community, which has benefitted from the ancillary spending which accompanies events like Vikings games – from those who eat meals, buy a couple of sodas and packs of cigarettes, fill up their gas tanks or buy clothing. Hennepin County, to its credit, realized that 81 Twins games a year would bring the kind of outside crowds (and spending income) to their stores, restaurants and bars would be more beneficial than the 10 scheduled Vikings games. When the Twins opted to allow themselves to be euthanized out of existence, the city stepped up and left the state scot-free of having to pick up the stadium tab. They have regretted that decision, joining up with the City of St. Paul that has seen the X-cel Energy Center revitalize the nightlife industry in the downtown/West Seventh area of the city. Ramsey County wants a potential bigger piece of that pie. Movers and shakers in Hennepin County, while chiming in late to the dance, are chiming loudly.

Among them is veteran Star-Tribune columnist Sid Hartman, whose voice – whether appreciated or not – has been heard on radio and television, in print and, as he would likely call it, "The World-Wide Interweb," standing up for keeping the Vikings in Minneapolis. It should be noted that when the Metrodome was built, it was viewed as a coup for the Star-Trib. The stadium was built almost literally across the street from its home office. At that time, photos were run through chemical processes and, having the advantage of a photo from the ninth inning of a Twins game that the St. Paul Pioneer Press couldn't have was vital. Given technological advances, that advantage has gone down the road of extinction, along with the typewriter and carbon paper as weapons in the journalist arsenal.

Yet, voices like Hartman's reach a lot of ears. Granted, many of them are assisted by hearing aids, but they are amplified ears of constituents of legislators. One thing I've learned about the world of politics is that the older you get, the more vocal your political voice becomes.

Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of stadium development, is working for a stadium solution for the Vikings, whether the stadium is in downtown Minneapolis, Arden Hills or on a man-made island in the middle of Mille Lacs Lake. He said the opposition to the stadium site – noting that the soil underneath the proposed site is contaminated – has the Vikings questioning why the undercurrent of Minneapolis-based politics is trying to torpedo the Ramsey County proposal by claiming it's just a posturing to get Minneapolis to step up its financial commitment.

"I know Sid says it's the oldest dirt and the dirtiest dirt in the history of dirt, and they (the Vikings) are just using Ramsey County," Bagley said. "There's a West Metro bias, including from Sid Hartman and others, about where people would like to see a stadium. But there needs to be a partnership, a collaboration, along the lines of what is developing with Ramsey County."

Bagley re-asserted to the naysayers that the Vikings aren't trying to hold anyone hostage. The organization is making an honest effort to work with politicos at the state, county and city level to get a stadium done. The benefit of hindsight has disgruntled Anoka County big wigs claiming that they were used as a pawn in a higher-stakes chess game. However, Bagley says the lines of communication with Ramsey County are not only legitimate, but the path of choice in the 11th hour (or 911th hour given the legislative foot-dragging on a stadium solution).

"It's not a ploy to try to leverage anybody," Bagley said. "It's a viable site. The Wilfs have been made aware of it for two years. We've looked into it. Mark (Wilf) has been out there. We've hired technical support to look into it and now we're on a track to get those questions answered to figure out how much the cost premium might be and then how to account for those costs. We're pleased with Ramsey County's willingness to make it move forward."

What portends for the immediate future is the Band-Aid applied to the sucking chest wound that is the Metrodome. The recently approved $18 million replacement of its defective roof – which is likely to get indoor-blanketed by a storm event that will rival the one that brought it down in December – is a stop-gap at best. It's little more than burying a pile of garbage at the dump. The Catch-22 that may face the Vikings and legislators is the significance of repairing the Metrodome roof.

At a time where the State of Minnesota is trying to balance its own budget from a difficult economic recession, there are some that will say that the replacement of the notebook-thin roof of the dome may buy the state time to reach a stadium agreement, the reality is that the original engineers had it right: this is a facility that will last 30 years. It came up 13 months short of its expiration date.

It would seem that what the state has done with the Metrodome has cut the mold off the cheese and kept the rest of the block. But, from the Vikings' perspective, excising a portion of the problem isn't a long-term solution. In a climate in which a stadium deal has all the "make-or-break" potential of a postseason game, the Vikings are looking at Ramsey County as a home-field advantage, albeit late to the dance. They know their current home remains in the Metrodome and will be willing to play there beyond their lease expiration, but only if they have a concrete future in the state – not a fixed-roof stadium that has a roof that wasn't as fixed as expected.

"We support their decision (to replace the Metrodome roof), but it's going to complicate the discussion at the Capitol because people will say, ‘Well, there's a roof and what's the issue?'" Bagley asked rhetorically. "Well, the issue is that it's not a long-term facility. The roof collapse underscores that. We have to move forward at the Capitol to try to get a long-term solution resolved this year."

Even the staunchest of Metrodome supporters is hamstrung to argue that the current Vikings stadium is suitable. No legislator has likely witnessed the roof on his or her own house collapse. If they have, it may have been what prompted them into a career in public service. As it stands right now, the Vikings are homeless. They used to have a roof over their heads. They no longer do. As the sun rises this morning, somewhere above the storm system of a similar magnitude that made the Metrodome and unintended open-air stadium bearing down on the crippled structure, no more proof is needed. The Vikings need a new stadium. Period.

One way or another, they will get one. The question at this point isn't whether it's in the suburban Twin Cities or not. It's whether it's going to be in Minnesota or Los Angeles.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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