Business execs team up to shape stadium choice

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2011 - 9:58 AM

Jac Sperling, who helped bring the Wild to St. Paul, will lobby for the group.

As debate over a new Vikings stadium intensifies, some of the region's top business executives are working -- discreetly -- to shape how and where the new stadium will be built.

In fact, they have been talking privately to the Vikings for more than a year.

Their efforts didn't get much attention until last week, when Jac Sperling, the sports executive who helped land the NHL Wild in St. Paul more than a decade ago, registered as a lobbyist for the corporate coalition known as the Minnesota Competitiveness Fund.

Turns out, big business is throwing more than just conversation at the effort. Eight to 10 CEOs of some of the Twin Cities largest companies have contributed $25,000 each to hire Sperling and analyze the various stadium site proposals, multiple sources say. Among them: Ken Powell, chairman and chief executive of General Mills; Richard Davis, chairman and chief executive of U.S. Bancorp; and Doug Baker, chairman and chief executive of St. Paul-based Ecolab.

Leaders of the fund insist they are neutral on the site location.

"We will be completely agnostic when it comes to where the stadium will be built," said Davis, who also serves as treasurer of the competitiveness fund. "We are all about keeping the Vikings here. We don't have a favored location. When there is a plan that looks doable, we will roll out our support."

The current alternatives are a $1 billion proposal for a stadium complex in Arden Hills, which has been embraced by the Vikings, and a $895 million proposal for construction of a new stadium on the current site of the Metrodome.

A third possible site on the Farmers Market area near Target Field has also been mentioned.

The Star Tribune, which owns property near the Metrodome site, is not part of the competitiveness fund, company executives said.

Wherever the stadium is built, containing costs should be a top priority, Davis said. Will Davis and his group push for Minneapolis, since the Metrodome proposal is less expensive than Arden Hills plan? Not necessarily, he said. "We just want to this thing to happen."

David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber, said he has been in meetings with Davis and Baker, who is president of the competitiveness fund. "They want to know what site makes the financial numbers work and what site can get the deal done," Olson said.

The hiring of Sperling as the group's "facilitator" demonstrated their seriousness about being a player in the stadium debate, Olson said. Besides the Wild, Sperling helped bring Major League Baseball to Denver and get Coors Field built there. He was involved in negotiations for ball park deals in Milwaukee, Seattle and San Francisco.

He also has been assigned by the NBA to help right a floundering basketball team in New Orleans.

"What Jac brings to the table is a facilitator's role," Olson said. "They hope he can facilitate conversations here with the right folks to get a stadium done."

But skeptics think the goals of big business are misguided when it comes to new sports venues.

"It's one thing to put in $25,000 -- that's nothing. But we're talking about a $1 billion deal. How about a surtax on corporate profits to fund it?" said Arthur Rolnick, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Recruiting tool

Davis said his group has had weekly meetings with the Vikings for a year and has met with NFL officials, including Commissioner Roger Goodell. He said the organization has also had talks with Gov. Mark Dayton, but not local officials.

Davis and Baker said the Vikings and the business community need each other.

The Vikings need businesses to lease the corporate suites, purchase the season tickets and provide the advertising sponsorships that generates revenue for the team. The Vikings, meanwhile, are important to the cultural and social landscape of the state, they said.

"This is a recruiting tool, a retention tool and a quality of life issue," Davis said.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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