On May 27, the Minneapolis City Council is going to vote on whether or not to approve a tailgating zone surrounding U.S. Bank Stadium. It has been a long and arduous process that was a component of the stadium bill that passed the Minnesota State Legislature four years ago.
The city council is expected to approve the plan, which will provide 600-700 tailgate spaces for 2016 with the potential to reach as high as 1,000 shortly thereafter, according to Lester Bagley, Minnesota Vikings Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Stadium Development.
Bagley has maintained throughout the process that keeping the tradition of tailgating is a priority for the Vikings, but it has been a long-winding process with the City of Minneapolis and the neighborhood groups surrounding the stadium.
“It was extremely important,” Bagley said. “It was a long hard climb. We included in the legislation that passed in 2012 an agreement to expand the tailgate zone for our fans. That was a negotiation that had to occur between the Vikings and the City of Minneapolis. R.T. Rybak was still the mayor when we sat down and first talked about the tailgate zone. It kind of got put by the city and then they asked us to go and negotiate with, or at least gain a consensus with, the neighborhood groups.”
That process entailed bringing together a lot of different groups with different goals and agendas. Each of them had their own goals and aims in the process, which at times were in differing views of the need or availability for tailgating lots.
Given the rich history of tailgating in Minnesota, which dates back to the glory days of the franchise when the Vikings played at Metropolitan Stadium, where they had the largest parking lot in the NFL, the Vikings would love to embrace a top-notch tailgate experience. While the new stadium won’t be able to fully replicate that experience, the Vikings had to work with several groups – both with the city and neighborhoods – to accomplish their goal.
“Over a four-year period, we went to various neighborhood groups – the Elliot Park neighborhood, East Downtown Council and the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association,” Bagley said. “We worked with all these groups and painstakingly worked on each additional block. It was extremely important because tailgating is a time-honored tradition. Many Vikings fans believe we invented tailgating at the old Met and there are great stories with our former players that they would stop in the parking lot after games and there would be camaraderie going on and they would actually hang out with them. It was extremely important because it was an important tradition we want to keep alive and continue.”
The stadium itself has been part of the problem in securing tailgate areas. As is always the case when a new stadium is constructed, there is ancillary growth around the stadium from private industry. All one needs to do is drive by the West Seventh Street area around the Xcel Center to see what a sports multi-use facility can do to the surrounding neighborhood.
Not only are old buildings being taken down and replaced, parking lots are also being eliminated to provide more housing, retail shops, bars and restaurants to the area. It has added to the value of the surrounding area, but has created a more difficult footprint in which to meet the demand for tailgating spots.
“The good news is that the Vikings stadium delivered a lot of economic activity in the Downtown East area surrounding the stadium,” Bagley said. “There’s more than $1 billion of development going on there now, all of which had the stadium as the catalyst for that development. That’s the good news – that the whole area is transforming. The bad news for tailgating is that a lot of the surface parking lots are going away. We’ve lost some of those lots that were there during the Metrodome years and it took a more strategic plan to accomplish our goal.”
When the tailgate zone was discussed at the committee level of the Minneapolis City Council May 17 meeting, Bagley said there was a misconception that the tailgate zone, which seeks to have all tailgating spots within a quarter-mile of the stadium, was shrinking from the original plan.
Media accounts earlier this week portrayed the tailgate zone as becoming smaller, but Bagley said the only change has been that the footprint of the zone has shifted out of necessity, not choice, and hasn’t changed to the extent that some have reported.
“Some media have said it has shrunk and some fans have been concerned that we’re shrinking it and that’s not true,” Bagley said. “What it did was shift eastward and a little north. What it did was cover enough spaces. We know what the demand is to our season ticket owners. At the end of the Metrodome era, there were 700 to 800 tailgaters. We have in this zone about 1,000 tailgate spaces and we think for the first season at U.S. Bank Stadium this year, that we’re going to have 600 to 700 tailgate spaces available for fans.”
Many of the aspects of the stadium construction process and the surrounding business expansion created by having a destination spot nearby has created a conundrum for the Vikings. The organization wants to have tailgating, but are not required to have it at the same time.
Of all short-term improvements that the Vikings have paid for are expected to reap long-term benefit; providing tailgate options aren’t something the team is going to cash in on.
“Tailgating is not a revenue source for the team,” Bagley said. “We have to rent the lots. We have to hire lot operators. It’s break-even at best. But, it’s a demand and we’re determined to fill it. We’ve been working on it since 2012 since the stadium bill passed.”
From the political standpoint, many believe the toughest hurdle was getting past the committee level. That is where longer discussions and issues are vetted. If they had failed there, it’s probable they wouldn’t even get to the full city council agenda for a vote.
While Bagley wouldn’t go so far as to put up a premature “Mission Accomplished” banner, he’s of the belief that a week from today will officially mark the next phase in the process.
“It still has to go through the full city council on May 27,” Bagley said. “The meeting (on May 17) was the tough test, because that was the committee debate and discussion. It went pretty smoothly and passed on a unanimous voice vote. We don’t want to presume anything, but it should pass the full city council. Then our organization can move into the communications and marketing mode and start communicating to our fans, find the demand that is out there and start to fill it.”
The Vikings have gone to great lengths, both conceptually and financially, to assure that attending a Vikings game will be an event at The Bank. Tailgating will be a part of that – even if the grills are helping to feed carnivores in a downtown, belly-of-the-city setting.
It’s a situation that has been made more difficult than it could have or, some would contend, should have been – the tailgate pickings would have been lush in Arden Hills. But, as has become a buzz phrase in the NFL, it is what it is.
Entire pigs will be roasted to perfection, leaving residual good downtown smells for those who arrive to work early on Mondays – or, thanks to the success of the team and the novelty of the stadium, the occasional Tuesday and Friday. It won’t be old-school tailgating like you see elsewhere, but it will be an island of nostalgia for those who like to get their drink on in a communal pregame and postgame setting.
“What is so important for Vikings fans and NFL fans, is the full game-day experience,” Bagley said. “We want our fans to come there early, stay there late and enjoy the camaraderie. The challenge for us continues to be – and will be more difficult going forward – that we have the most urban stadium in the NFL. It’s an area that is rapidly developing and the lots are disappearing. We understand that traditional tailgating is important to our fans. There is a demand for it and an expectation that it will be there. We want to deliver that. That is what we intend to deliver.”