Wilf Ownership Could Help Stadium Efforts

The Vikings have been lobbying (officially and unofficially) for a new stadium for almost a decade. Will a new ownership group make the difference?

Lester Bagley has been the Vikings' public affairs consultant for several years. Last fall, when Red McCombs stuck a fork in his lobbying efforts for a new stadium, Bagley's role was diminished. Instead of lobbying politicians for a new stadium, he eventually was relegated to working with a potential new ownership group and informing them about the team's stadium history and prospects for the future.

At that time, Reggie Fowler was considered the lead investor in that ownership group and Bagley was assigned to working mainly with Zygi Wilf, a minority partner back then whose business dealings were rooted in real estate.

Fortune smiled on Bagley. Zygi Wilf and his family became the majority owners of the Vikings in May, and Bagley was promptly promoted from a consultant to a vice president's position – vice president of public affairs and stadium development.

"I've been working with the (Wilf) family for the last several months," Bagley said in June. "I met Zygi last fall, and he was going to be the point person on the stadium deal for the new ownership group, so I began working with him since Gary Woods (president of the Vikings under the McCombs ownership) authorized me to work with this ownership group."

In less than a year, Bagley's prospects of working with the Vikings long-term went from dim to assured, and he's hoping that same kind of turnaround can take place with his efforts to secure some public financing for a new stadium.

While he has been setting up meetings between the Wilfs and key Minnesota politicians, he says Zygi has been very well received, and his plan to develop the area around a potential new stadium is a positive for the Vikings and with the legislators.

When NFL owners approved Wilf's $600 million bid for the Vikings, he began forwarding the idea of an open-air stadium. With the Vikings playing in the controlled environment of the Metrodome for the past 21 years, the idea of putting their fans back out in the cold in Decembers and Januaries had some wondering how the open-air stadium would fly.

So far, according to Bagley, the feedback has been positive.

"Surprising positive, from Coach (Bud) Grant to former players to current players to staff to fans. … At the Viking Children's Fund tournament, Bob Lurtsema said, ‘How about it?' and the sponsors erupted, so it's been very enthusiastic. I've been very surprised at the reaction of his (Wilf's) goal and vision of an open-air facility," Bagley said.

Even so, a retractable roof might still be in the cards. "I think it's one of those details that needs to be negotiated and worked out, just like where is the stadium going to be, what the construction will look like, what's the stadium going to look like, what's the ancillary development going to look like, will it have a roof – all the details need to be worked through and potentially negotiated with our public partners and the state of Minnesota," Bagley said. "But right now that's the vision and it's been very well received."

Despite the legislature having to call a special session to pass a budget after seven months of wrangling and little progress, Bagley said it's realistic to expect a Vikings stadium bill in the next session.

Currently, the Gophers and Twin each have separate stadium bills they are hoping to put to a vote. One bill up for debate has the Gophers seeking $94 million in public money for a proposed $234 million, open-air, on-campus stadium.

The Twins are seeking approval by the state for Hennepin County to raise local sales tax to pay for a $438 million downtown stadium. That tax would equal three cents on a purchase of $20 made in the county.

In the Vikings' case, Wilf confirmed to legislators that the Vikings would be willing to contribute one-third of the construction costs for a football stadium. He also has plans to develop the area surrounding a stadium with a combination of residential and commercial properties.

However, for that plan to ever come to fruition, the politicians will have to make more progress than they have to date.

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