This is likely to be the most important offseason ever for the Minnesota Vikings, and the status of Brett Favre is a distant second on the priority list.
After more than a decade of lobbying under the direction of two owners -- and at possibly the worst time in state history to try to secure state aid -- the team will push hard during the upcoming legislative session for a mostly publicly financed stadium.
While Minnesotans focused on the unforgettable season that ended in disappointment last week, the team's lobbyists, business leaders, legislators and the governor have worked mostly behind the scenes to build momentum for a plan that no doubt will be unpopular with many state taxpayers.
It's time for the debate to move into a more open and productive public stage. Before any decisions are made at the Capitol, Minnesotans deserve a full and transparent discussion of the myriad issues raised by the stadium push. And if stadium supporters hope to succeed, it's time for them to turn up the energy level and start promoting this project as a positive contribution to the community's future. Skeptical voters aren't going to be won over by half-hearted endorsements focused only on what might be lost without a new stadium.
Here's what we're expecting from key stakeholders in the weeks ahead:
The Vikings: Realistic solutions. Owner Zygi Wilf deserves credit for playing down the threat of a move, but the possibility is real with the team's lease set to expire after the 2011 season. The arms race in professional sports makes public financing for stadiums almost a given for any market that chooses to play the game, but the Vikings need to recognize the economic realities in Minnesota today and work with legislators to come up with a financing plan that minimizes the financial hit on the state over the next few years and commits the team to stay in Minnesota for generations to come.
The team has discussed a $650 million open-air stadium in downtown Minneapolis, with the Vikings and NFL contributing $216 million. Add a retractable roof, and the price tag rises to $870 million. The Vikings say they don't need the roof, so the team's contribution wouldn't increase.
That's an unrealistic sales pitch. Given the limited NFL schedule, only a roofed stadium would return full value to the community as a draw for convention business and other major events. The team should acknowledge that reality and be ready to increase its contribution. And it's time to stop the nonsense about a suburban location. A new stadium on the Metrodome site would almost certainly be less expensive, and investing in a downtown Minneapolis facility, with so much land and infrastructure already in place, would add the greatest value to the wider community.
The governor and Legislature: Strong and creative leadership. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, key legislators and gubernatorial candidates say they don't want to see the Vikings leave Minnesota, but they also seem more than willing to duck and dodge when possible solutions are discussed. It's easier for politicians to spring into action on stadiums when the moving vans are gassed up and ready to roll, but Minnesotans deserve more proactive, accountable leadership and problem solving. This is a legacy opportunity for the governor, whose lame-duck status should free him to make a bold move for Minnesota's future and not dump the Vikings problem on his successor. Gubernatorial candidate and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, whose city stands to gain the most from a downtown stadium, shouldn't remain on the sidelines, either.
Once they find the backbone to lead, officials should be straight with Minnesotans. Never mind the familiarly clever and complicated arguments so common in stadium debates suggesting that there's no real public money in the deal. Treat the state's taxpayers like the intelligent adults they are. Explain to them why this public investment is worthwhile.
The business community: A major league effort. The Vikings say Twin Cities business leaders will soon go public with their support for a stadium, arguing that our big-league market status is in jeopardy. That's a critical point that can best be made by the leaders of Fortune 500 companies who are in a constant battle to recruit and retain talented employees. The public needs to hear from community-minded CEOs such as Richard Davis at U.S. Bancorp and Ken Powell at General Mills. Leaders of the hospitality industry and building trades also need to be part of the public discussion, making the case for the return on investment the state can expect from a new stadium. And if, as the Vikings suggest, the hospitality industry is warming up to a modest hotel and liquor tax as part of the financing package, they should take their case to the public.
Minnesotans: Open minds. It's too easy to just say no. The Vikings are part of the cultural fabric that holds us together at a time when many forces seem to be pulling us further apart. What's the cost of losing the team, and what's the real return on the investment we'd have to make to keep the franchise here? Even in a tepid economic recovery, forward-looking communities continue to invest in critical infrastructure. We need the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission and Convention and Visitors Bureau to do a better job explaining what the potential benefits are for an almost-billion-dollar stadium with a retractable roof. We already know about the one Super Bowl and the nice but infrequent Final Fours. How could the new stadium be tied into the convention center, making this a more competitive site for major events we've not been able to attract to the aging Dome?
Minnesotans can expect to hear many understandably frustrated complaints about subsidizing a wealthy sports owner. In a perfect world, owners would build their own NFL stadiums. Our world, unfortunately, is not perfect, and there's nothing Minnesota can do to make it so. The real questions are: How do we want to position the state to take full advantage of the recovery when it comes, and will we be better off with the Vikings, or without them?
In the interest of full disclosure, readers should be aware that development of the Metrodome site could include property now owned by the Star Tribune, and the Vikings at one point had an option to buy some of the newspaper's land.
This page isn't ready to advocate for or against a Vikings stadium plan because no definitive proposal exists. We do, however, fully endorse taking the issue seriously. The risk of losing a significant community asset is real, and the time has come for a robust statewide debate.