Vikings stadium time is ticking

The Minnesota Legislature is going to introduce a Vikings stadium bill Monday, but it is short on time. The franchise just hopes the politicians see the money that could be lost if a funding mechanism isn't approved.

With just two weeks remaining in the 2010 session of the Minnesota State Legislature, today will be a watershed day in the 50-year history of the Vikings as a part of the fabric of the state. For the first time, a significant proposal for a Vikings stadium that would include state-endorsed funding is expected to be introduced at 9 a.m. today.

House Ways and Means Chairman Loren Solberg and Rep. Joe Hoppe (R-Chaska) sent correspondence to Democratic and Republican legislators explaining that they will announce a proposed plan that is intended to "start a discussion" of the stadium issue. The Vikings have just two years remaining on their lease at the Metrodome and there has been growing discussion that, if a stadium deal can't be accomplished, the Vikings could move out of Minnesota.

While the Vikings stadium has been a growing hot-button issue for several years, the only time that a Vikings stadium received any serious legislative discussion was during an 11th hour move to try to piggy-back a Vikings stadium on a bill that would address stadium concerns of the Twins and University of Minnesota. The Vikings' portion of the bill was quickly pulled out and, in the years since, the growing state deficit has pushed a Vikings stadium bill to the backburner.

Today's proposal is expected to claim that the $800 million stadium would be paid for exclusively through user fee taxes. While specifics of the proposal haven't identified which user fees will be included in the proposal, options that have been discussed as possibilities include hotel taxes, rental car taxes, a sports memorabilia tax, ticket taxes for stadium events, a City of Minneapolis sales tax and/or a new state lottery game in which proceeds would go to funding a new stadium.

While general budget dollars of the state aren't being used, it is hoped that legislators will understand the importance of the revenue that is generated by income taxes, property taxes and money spent within the communities in Minnesota where the Vikings players live and visit. They pay millions each year in taxes, spend millions more that stays in the local economy and provide hundreds of ancillary jobs that would last long after the construction phase in finished. Anyone who has been around the Twin Cities long enough to remember going to events at the St. Paul Civic Center remembers how few people were actually employed around the building. With the Xcel Energy Center, the surrounding area has blossomed with restaurants, bars and shops that are manned with employees and customers spending their disposable income there. There is more to the stadium issue than seeing it merely from the perspective of how it will be funded. How much money will be lost each year if the Vikings leave Minnesota? Aside from the backlash from Vikings fans, it can only be imagined that the economic impact of having the Vikings in Minnesota negates any public funding (if any is approved) money that would be needed to get a stadium done.

There are sure to be opponents to the plan and, with just two weeks left, as usual, the State Legislature still has about three-fourths of its work yet to finish. For those unfamiliar with Minnesota politics, after months of hearings, sound bytes and photo ops, with two weeks remaining, the Legislature has yet to complete major bills for health, human services and education – which account for much of the annual state budgets. When it can't done on time, the Legislature announces a "special session," which would be special if not for the fact that it happens too often. There is the chance that powerful opponents to the bill will try to get it shoved to the backburner, but having legitimate legislation moving through both houses of the Legislature is a positive step in that the the proposal can be heard.

Over the past year, the term "economic stimulus" has been used in talks of spending money to revive the economy. Few industries have been hit harder than the construction trades. The Minnesota building trade is estimated to have an unemployment rate of 40 percent and combined with low interest rates and competitive bidding for major projects, the price that a stadium proposal could get could come in under engineers' estimates.

Opponents to the plan continue the same line of rhetoric – that the poor and disadvantaged will be the victims of a stadium plan and that the state has more pressing short-term needs. Considering the tax breaks the state has given to retain other major businesses in Minnesota, it seems ironic that an institution like the Vikings meets with such bitter opposition. Many other states, cities and counties around the country have recognized the need to make sure they retain major professional sports. Cities like St. Louis, Houston, Baltimore and Cleveland have felt the sting of losing a franchise and each had to pony up a lot more money to get another franchise to come back to their area than would have been spent simply to keep the team they had. With the NFL conferences being symmetrical, the odds of expansion any time soon are all but nonexistent. Complicating matters is that, after the 2011 season, the NFL is no longer under any obligation to Minnesota.

For those unaware of the Vikings lease with the Metrodome, when the Legislature approved $70 million to build the Metrodome –$70 million! – it was done to prevent Mike Lynn from moving the Vikings. He had made a threat to move the team to Phoenix or Memphis. He had no intention of playing in a renovated Metropolitan Stadium, which, by any measure, was a stadium to watch baseball in, not football. Lynn had the hammer and, in exchange for its support, the Legislature asked for and received a signed document from then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle promising that, if the Vikings left Minnesota for any reason, the NFL would replace it with another franchise – whether by expansion or relocation of another franchise. In less than two years, that gun to the head will be gone, and perhaps with it, any willingness of other NFL owners to block a proposed relocation of the franchise.

The Vikings need public funding of some kind to get the stadium that will assure they will remain in Minnesota for another 50 years. Time is short for the legislative session and the time at which the Vikings could test the franchise free-agent market is drawing closer. Legislators may well have a lot on their plates over the next two weeks, but they might want to take a serious look at a stadium proposal if one can come forward that makes sense. Bonding doesn't have to come at the cost of children or the elderly. The clock is ticking.

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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