While heading the agency overseeing U.S. Bank Stadium, Michele Kelm-Helgen waived more than $55,300 in rent for event spaces without consulting the agency’s staff, executive director or fellow board members.
Among the 14 groups that got free use of the luxury spaces at the state-owned stadium were the Twin Cities Dunkers, a local sports booster club, and the PGA of America, the hosts of last year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
Meanwhile, some 350 other groups paid thousands in rent to use space in the building for events from weddings to fundraisers. Former state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page’s Foundation paid as did the Xcel Energy Foundation, Boston Scientific, Twin Cities Orthopedics and numerous law firms.
Kelm-Helgen, who resigned last month as chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), said she used her discretion to waive rent to further the goal of marketing the building.
Interim MSFA Chairwoman Kathleen Blatz said a “public purpose” was stated for each free event and that presentations and tours were made at most events. But she said she hopes to “realign” the MSFA chair’s responsibilities so that stadium operator SMG handles club rental decisions.
State Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, head of the House State Government Finance Committee, called the waivers “really disappointing.” Anderson is the lead sponsor of a proposal to reconfigure the MSFA, limit the role of its chairperson and eliminate the six-figure salary.
Anderson said she learned of the waivers from a tipster and sent a letter in early January to the MSFA, which responded with a letter detailing the waivers. Some of the events were required to get free use of the building as part of the stadium’s public purpose. Those include the Minnesota State High School League soccer and football playoffs and the monthly MSFA board meetings.
“This is an asset and we need to have policies in place to make sure nothing is abused,” Anderson said.
Kelm-Helgen and Executive Director Ted Mondale resigned last month under criticism from GOP leaders about their use of two taxpayer-owned luxury suites to entertain friends and family during Minnesota Vikings games, concerts and soccer matches. Other MSFA commissioners also used the suites.
The Star Tribune reported this past week that Kelm-Helgen had also used her position to help friends and family members jump to the front of the seniority line to secure the best 50-yard-line seats in the luxury Medtronic Club for Minnesota Vikings games.
Measures already are advancing at the Legislature to reshape the MSFA and provide more oversight.
The club spaces rent from $900 for a two-hour weekday slot in a cabin, a smaller meeting space on the upper level of the stadium, to $15,000-plus for the field-level Turf Club.
Some of the events had obvious marketing benefits, including the Meeting Professionals International gathering on Aug. 24 in the Delta Sky360 Club. At $7,400, that event had one of the larger rent waivers, according to MSFA spokeswoman Jenn Hathaway, who added that the gathering gave an overview of the building for hundreds of professional planners.
Other uses weren’t clear-cut. For example, the Minneapolis Workforce Council, part of the city’s Community Development Agency, met in the Buffalo Wild Wings Club on Sept. 20 and received a $1,700 waiver.
Deb Bahr-Helgen oversees the council as director of Minneapolis Employment and Training. She is a distant relative of Kelm-Helgen’s husband, Henry Helgen, according to the MSFA. The Twin Cities Dunkers also got free access to the Delta Sky360 Club for a waiver of $3,300. “The breakfast they held at the stadium had a very clear marketing purpose,” Kelm-Helgen said in a statement. “We did a presentation on the stadium and the club spaces we have available to rent.”
Kelm-Helgen is a member of Twin Cities Dunkers; the MSFA pays her $500 annual membership fee.
One of the two largest rental fee waivers, $8,500, went to the PGA of America board dinner in the Hyundai Club on Sept. 29. The stated reason, according to provided documents: “participation in regional and statewide economic development efforts.” The other, in the same space for the same amount, was for an awards event to honor partners who helped the MSFA meet their equity hiring goals.
Neither Kelm-Helgen nor Hathaway was able to provide the name of any bookings that resulted from events in the free space.
SMG, a global stadium marketer, was hired by the MSFA to run U.S. Bank Stadium. SMG’s profits from the operation are based on revenue from bookings. “Waiving rent is not something that works in our favor ever,” SMG spokeswoman Lisa Niess said. “But the best form of marketing is to get somebody in the building.”
Hathaway said Kelm-Helgen consulted with SMG on the two meeting planner events, but in the other cases, told SMG they would be free.
Staff and commissioners weren’t informed of the decisions. Mondale said he didn’t learn of the waivers until Anderson asked.
Commissioner Barbara Butts Williams and Tony Sertich said they learned in January as well. “Her role was marketing, as was SMG,” Butts Williams said. “We entrusted them to make good decisions.”
As to whether the groups merited the waivers, she said, “I would have to dig deeper into the rationale. I don’t have enough information.”