Bucking stadium doubts, Wilf says ‘Let’s get this done’

The Vikings owner wants to push ahead with the Arden Hills plan. But Minneapolis sites may still be in picture, amid worries that costs could balloon.

Armed with a new report that removed some doubts about their project, the Minnesota Vikings pushed even harder Wednesday to build a new $1 billion stadium in Arden Hills and have legislators take what one official called a "career vote" to approve the plan before Thanksgiving.

But while the team and Ramsey County officials hailed the long-awaited Metropolitan Council report as largely validating the stadium project, fresh concerns also emerged, along with signs that some top state leaders and even Hennepin County may still be considering building a stadium in Minneapolis.

"There is nothing in this report which suggests we should not move forward with this site," said team owner Zygi Wilf. "Let's get this project done in Arden Hills."

In a statement released shortly after the report, Gov. Mark Dayton made a point of saying that "I am willing to support a stadium in either Arden Hills or Minneapolis, as long as the project's financing ... is clearly defined and agreed upon." Now, he said, "is the time to decide whether or not to undertake this project and, if so, where to locate it."

Wednesday's report described the Vikings' timetable to have the stadium built by 2015 as "aggressive" and "unrealistic," and said that 2016 or 2017 was more likely. It projected a funding gap of $39 million, and said Ramsey County's sales tax increase would fall well short of the $408 million the county would be committed to spending should there be large overruns.

Vikings officials said the study presented too gloomy a picture and overemphasized the risks. They challenged the report's finding of a funding gap and, along with Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, disputed the notion that the stadium could not be completed in time for the 2015 season.

They noted that the report fixed the cost of needed road upgrades at $101 million -- well below the $175 million that some had speculated such upgrades would cost.

"Time is running out," Bennett said. "We need to get started with the shovels and the hoes and get this project moving." The commissioner, who has been the chief sponsor of the project, also chided the Met Council report for its emphasis on worse-case scenarios. The best-case scenario, he said, would slash the cost of the project by $76 million.

Team president Mark Wilf noted that delaying the project beyond 2015 "is inevitable if the location is changed from Arden Hills."

Timing for Minneapolis bid?

Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat, who has laid low during the Arden Hills debate, on Wednesday said that his county's involvement in helping fund a Minneapolis stadium may come down to timing.

"I think when the time is right, we'll know it, and I just don't know when that will be just yet," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that in a Tuesday meeting with Ted Mondale, Dayton's chief stadium negotiator, Mondale outlined how stadium proposals in Minneapolis might come together. "There's clearly work being done there," said Bakk.

Mondale downplayed that discussion and said Wednesday he remains focused on Arden Hills.

"I showed Bakk what the Minneapolis proposal that was out in March or April looked like, and then what it would look like with Hennepin [County] and Minneapolis together" paying for a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis, he said.

Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson said the report should make people think about what it would mean to have the Vikings leave downtown Minneapolis. "It just doesn't make sense for us to subsidize a big development in some suburban place," she said.

Besides, she said, with the Metrodome's new roof and field turf, the old stadium "looks pretty danged nice. So what's the rush?"

Johnson said she and Mayor R.T. Rybak strongly prefer building a new stadium on the Metrodome site but said they are open to the Farmer's Market site near Target Field.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of the Vikings stadium legislation, said he now expects meetings with Dayton, the Vikings and legislative leaders to move more quickly.

With time running out for a special legislative session before the end of the year, Lanning said a state funding plan must gel within the next several weeks.

"I would think that a special session would have to happen before the holidays, before Thanksgiving," Lanning said.

There were other signs that the events of the past two days might be changing minds.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said she still prefers a referendum but said "the decision by locals will be a factor in discussions going forward."

A 'career vote'

Mondale, head of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, said legislators could face a "career vote" soon. Despite the issues raised in the report, Mondale said it also effectively eliminated any "unknown time bombs."

But the report said the pricetag estimates for land acquisition, site demolition and soil remediation vary widely, from $23 million to $70 million. Proper environmental cleanup could be "very challenging" and a "significant risk" for the project.

If cost overruns push the price to $1.234 billion, the study said, Ramsey County might be liable for another $50 million under its agreement with the Vikings.

In one sign of the project's complexity, the report said the stadium would require approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the Federal Highway Administration, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The Vikings, a consulting firm and four local, state and federal agencies also met with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, in September to try to unravel the many thorny issues involving the building of a single road for the project.

Zygi Wilf remained undeterred: "This is our deal, at the right time and with the right partners."

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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