In nearly three decades in the Minnesota Legislature, Dean Johnson rarely worked a session where there wasn't some discussion about building a new Twin Cities sports stadium.
Year after year, local teams lined up at the Capitol to lobby for public financing. Year after year, they left dejected and empty handed.
"It was like mosquitoes and flies at the Fourth of July picnic," said Johnson, of Willmar. "It was always there."
Now, with the Minnesota Vikings poised to select an architect Friday for a $975 million downtown Minneapolis stadium and the St. Paul Saints nabbing a $25 million state grant earlier this month, nearly every major local sports team has a sparkling new venue or is about to get one -- all with some public subsidies. After years of contentious debate, more than $1 billion in public money has been pledged to stadiums for the Twins, Vikings, Saints and University of Minnesota football team.
What turned the tide in the push for public help?
Veterans of the stadium wars say a series of factors -- from an aging Metrodome and competition from newer, more lucrative venues across the country to expiring team leases, persistent pressure from the local teams and a public "fatigue" over nonstop stadium debate -- weighed heavily in decisions to approve funding.
Money and labor talked. So, too, did fear of abandonment. Nobody wanted the Twin Cities to become a "cold Omaha."
"You look at Indianapolis, you look at Phoenix, you look at the Yankees in New York, and translation: If we're going to be a major league city, we need to have major league facilities," Johnson said. "And so the arms race begins."
Stephen Ross, associate professor of sport management at the University of Minnesota, said the public's reluctance to use public dollars for stadiums wavered little through the years despite an "onslaught" of proposals and some "very, very strong lobbying" by the teams. "I still think for the majority, people are against it," said Ross, who has watched the local stadium battles for the past decade.
What changed over time, he said, was a realization by legislators and the public that the Metrodome -- the community's premier sports venue and home to the Twins, Vikings and Gopher football team -- had become obsolete and the Twin Cities area was falling behind other cities in building modern venues to better serve fans and attract showcase events such as Super Bowls and Final Fours.
Baltimore's Camden Yards, built in the early 1990s for baseball's Orioles, was the "game changer," according to former Twins President Jerry Bell, who lobbied for a decade to win financing for a new Twins' home.
For the first time, a stadium put a premium on design and fan amenities. Team revenues, once generated solely by ticket, concession and parking sales, were now heavily dependent on the sale of premiums seats, corporate suites, and a higher quality of concessions.
Team owners "all looked at that and said 'We need the same thing and we need it in order to keep up,'" Bell said.
About two-thirds of the more than 60 venues in Major League Baseball and the NFL were built since Camden Yards opened in 1992.
Bell said competition from new venues in the Twin Cities also added pressure.
When the glitzy Xcel Energy Center, home to the Minnesota Wild, opened in 2000 with suites, premium seats, cutting edge scoreboards and upscale concessions, it "had an eye-opening effect that there is going to be more to this than a sheet of ice," Bell said.
When Target Field, home for the Twins, opened to rave reviews 10 years later, even fans who had opposed public funding for the project seemed to forget.
Lester Bagley, a Vikings vice president who lobbied for a decade for a new stadium, said the Vikings definitely benefitted from Target Field's success. "It's a great facility, and it secured our team," he said.
Governor's backing crucial
Timing, politics and public fear and fatigue also influenced decisions.
It probably didn't hurt the Vikings' drive to build a new facility when the Metrodome roof collapsed in 2010, underscoring the building's deteriorating condition.
Strong backing from Gov. Mark Dayton helped, too.
"These things don't happen unless you have a governor saying he or she wants these things built," said Roger Moe, a DFLer who served as Senate majority leader for two decades and heard plenty of talk about stadium financing. "And this new one would not have been built without Mark Dayton going out front early and saying it was going to be built."
In a market that once lost the professional basketball Lakers and professional hockey North Stars, no legislator wanted to see the Twins or Vikings go on their watch.
"Nobody wants to be a cold Omaha or an even colder Kansas City for that matter," Ross said. "There is a lot of pride we take in having all the professional leagues represented, and then some. It's tradition, history."
Years of public stadium debates, mostly surrounding the Twins and Vikings, exhausted many.
"The public does get tired of this thing all the time," said Julian Empson Loscalzo, a Saints lobbyist who worked for years on a campaign to save Metropolitan Stadium as home for the Twins. "I think they get worn down. There's a cynicism, a feeling that the big guys always win."
Despite the boom of late, local teams -- and fans -- probably won't stay satisfied. As newer arenas and stadiums go up, the race to keep up will intensify.
Xcel is 12 years old. Target Center, which opened in 1990 as the home of the NBA Timberwolves, is undergoing a multi-million dollar makeover.
Some stadium watchers wonder whether the Vikings might even push for more if the team can't squeeze everything -- including a retractable roof, window or wall -- it wants in a stadium into the $975 million budget.
"Even though they have what they want, it doesn't stay this way," said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville and a critic of public subsidies for professional sports facilities. "In one sense, you breathe a sigh of relief and say 'We're done with the stadium fights.' But I think we'll hear in a year or two from now more stuff from other teams. It's just the nature of sports."
Said Johnson, the former legislator, "It's like an old couch. By the time you start getting comfortable with it, it starts to wear out."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425