The National Football League on Tuesday turned up the flame under talks aimed at building a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, strongly suggesting that inaction could encourage the team to leave Minnesota.
Visiting NFL executives emerged from afternoon talks with Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders saying they were "optimistic and encouraged" about the proposed $1.1 billion project, but they also made it clear they thought it was time to resolve the long-running debate.
Eric Grubman, the executive vice president of NFL Ventures and business operations, said that the league was worried that if no deal was reached before the Vikings' current lease expires next year, it could create a stalemate leading the team to consider "an alternative plan in another city." Grubman urged Dayton and legislative leaders to build on recent momentum to reach a deal. "If the moment is now," Grubman said, "... then let's take this moment."
Dayton wants a special legislative session to determine the fate of a publicly subsidized stadium by Thanksgiving. The key questions remaining are where the stadium will be built and how state officials will pay their share of the bill.
Gambling revenues could become an important part of that equation, as proponents of putting slot machines at state racetracks said it offered the best chance of raising some of the state's $300 million share of a new stadium.
Dayton also said he will meet Wednesday with people who want to build a casino on Block E, a facility that could help fund the proposed stadium.
The Vikings and Ramsey County officials hope to raise about $350 million from a county sales tax and use it for a subsidized stadium in Arden Hills.
The team has pledged at least $407 million to the project and NFL officials said Tuesday that a league loan program would make as much as $150 million available to the team.
While Dayton has said he is open to building in Arden Hills or Minneapolis, Grubman said that the NFL would not get directly involved in helping select a site.
"If there are choices that are given and have to be assessed, we assess them," he said.
City vs. city, DFL vs. GOP
Grubman deflected questions about the Vikings possibly moving to Los Angeles, the largest U.S. market without a professional football team, and said that there were no imminent plans to move the Vikings.
"To me, if I were a Minnesotan, any alternative other than Minnesota would be equally as bad," he said.
While Grubman tacitly acknowledged the sagging national economy, and the state's government shutdown in July, he added that "we know our fans in a lot of markets are struggling. ... [But] great cities are defined by the great institutions that they support." He added: "People are attracted to cities -- not for the traffic jams."
Although Dayton issued a reminder Tuesday that there were fewer than five weeks left in his plan to call a special session by Thanksgiving, there were indications that the DFL governor was already exasperated by Republicans, who have so far been cool to his stadium push.
On Monday, Senate Republican spokesman Michael Brodkorb criticized the DFL governor for moving ahead on a stadium plan without vetting it with the GOP.
Dayton said Tuesday: "If they want to play political games and try to score points for [the] 2012 or 2014 [elections], then I think people in Minnesota deserve better than that."
A push for racino
Some Republican legislators used Dayton's continuing stadium push Tuesday to build momentum for an expansion of gambling, including a racino proposal to install slot machines at the state's horse-racing tracks.
Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Senate Republicans last spring were just two or three votes away from passing a plan to use racino funds to pay for a new stadium and end the state's ongoing delay in making payments to Minnesota's K-12 schools.
"The only way I can connect the dots is with racino," Senjem said of the stadium funding puzzle. "We had it towards the end of the session, and it seemed to have some traction."
Pat Anderson, a Republican National Committeewoman and lobbyist for the Canterbury Park horse racing track, said racino would allow Republican legislators who have pledged not to raise taxes to help build the stadium.
"We always believed if a stadium was going to happen, they'd need racino funding to do it," she said.
But racino -- like most everything else involving the politically tricky stadium solution -- has its own critics.
"It's just a back-door tax," said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, which opposes a gambling expansion. "And it's a very bad way to go about it."
Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673