MANKATO – After 52 late-summer visits from the Vikings, this south-central Minnesota city will miss the NFL team and the 65,000 fans who make the pilgrimage to training camp to get close to players and savor the hope preseason always brings of a possible championship run.
"It's just been a part of the community," said Bryan Weinhagen, general manager at Tav on the Ave a couple of miles from where the Vikings set up at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "Next year there's going to be a void."
At Pagliai's Pizza, a favorite on Front Street in the historic downtown entertainment district, owner Jan Downs said an emphatic yes, she will miss the team. "Absolutely. Yes, absolutely," she said. "The Vikings have been great for us."
Downs spoke at the tail end of a lunch hour Monday, the penultimate day of the Vikings' final Mankato camp. The team's annual trip 90 minutes south of the Twin Cities ends next year as the Vikings open their new training center and team headquarters in Eagan in March. The new digs will have up-to-date amenities and world-class comfort: lounges for relaxing, auditoriums to watch film, baths for physical therapy and, for the first time, their own stadium that can seat up to 10,000 fans.
The switch will make life easier for the Vikings' front office staff, some of whom commute to Mankato several times a week during training camp. Crews won't have to spend weeks schlepping dozens of plus-sized mattresses and auxiliary refrigerators to accommodate the bodies and nutritional needs of 90 professional athletes whose weight can exceed 300 pounds.
The estimated economic impact of the 2½-week camp to Mankato is estimated at up to $5 million for hotels, restaurants and other businesses, said university President Richard Davenport.
Business owners say they welcome extra revenue, but the team's exit isn't a make-or-break thing. In the same complimentary lingo football coaches use for players, Mankato civic leaders say the intangibles also count for a lot.
During camp days, Jake's Stadium Pizza manager Andrew Boyer-Kern estimated an uptick in business of about 35 percent. "It's kind of fun to know you're going to busy those two weeks," he said. "People are happy. Everybody's excited for what the season will bring."
As for next year? "It doesn't mean no Christmas presents under the tree, it just means no icing on the cake," Boyer-Kern said.
Near Jake's, Jonny B's Bar and Beef is another favorite. Travis Baas shrugged off the lost revenue, saying, "Me, personally, I'm just going to miss all the fans and staff and personnel. You see the same people every year."
While camp is not as long as it once was — it used to run six weeks — the team's presence has still remained significant.
"For us it's the media exposure that we're losing that is impossible to replace," Davenport said.
The Vikings pay the university about $115,000 for housing and general expenses, which covers costs. The university makes some money, however, with parking fees for camp visitors. Officials wouldn't quantify the amount.
For Davenport, the team's departure is a loss of tradition that has existed for a third of the university's 149 years. He can't change that, but he will seek a way to replace the marketing impact of the camp, maybe with more advertisements. "I can't think of anything we can do that would give us as much radio, TV and newspaper exposure," Davenport said of camp.
Mankato isn't hurting. The road to the practice field from the state highway is lined with strip malls filled with national chains and big-box stores. New subdivisions and townhouses are under construction all along the route.
Some businesses still visibly greet the team and fans. The Red Lobster has a "Welcome Vikings fans" sign as do Pub 500 and Ummies in the entertainment district on Front Street where Robin Guhlke operates Becky's Floral & Gift Shoppe.
Guhlke doesn't see extra business during camp, but she's reaped another benefit. The Vikings were a draw for her grandsons who live in Detroit Lakes. "The grandkids always want to come stay with Grandma and Grandpa because they want to go up and see" players, she said.
A block away at "Once Read Book Exchange," two shoppers in Vikings shirts browsed the shelves. Owner Mark Hustad said the used bookstore gets the family members who aren't fans, though he gets a few fans as well.
He recalled a father-son pair from St. Louis who drive up every year bedecked in purple and gold. "It was always fun seeing them every year. The son was a real reader," Hustad said.
The two browsers, Tom and Bert Burns, a husband and wife from Newton, Iowa, said this was their third year to Mankato and they will likely visit Eagan next year. Tom wore a purple T-shirt that read, "Just once before I die."
That was a sentiment shared by restaurant and bar owners who will have the game on their TVs for customers this fall. As true Vikings fans, the business owners say they'll take one for the team in the hope that this move provides the magic mojo.
"Hopefully, we can get a Super Bowl," Weinhagen said. "As long as I get one before I go out."
Boyer-Kern echoed that, saying, "A championship is what we really want."