Vikings stadium opponents hold fire for now

Once a bill is introduced at the Capitol, the game is on.

Stadium fatigue. Target Field's allure. A sense of inevitability that giant sports stadiums are always built in the end. So why try to fight it?

All these factors have conspired to mute vocal opposition so far to the Minnesota Vikings' push for a publicly subsidized stadium.

With a stadium bill anticipated this week, though, Chris David expects that to change quickly.

"It's hard to get people into the cause when there isn't an official piece of legislation out there," he said. "Then we'll be able to get after it."

NoVikingsTax.com, David's website, is part of the latest effort to turn back a stadium tide that has ebbed and flowed since the mid-1990s, when the Twins and Vikings first got restless in the Metrodome and began looking for new digs.

It's a lopsided match. On one side are the Vikings -- media magnets with money, backed by power brokers from the political and business worlds, not to mention the NFL.

On the other side are the likes of this foursome:

•David, an unemployed caretaker and customer service worker from northeast Minneapolis who's using his own money to pay for and host the anti-stadium website.

•Dr. Laura Lehmann, a soft-spoken Edina physician who volunteers to help the uninsured at a Minneapolis clinic.

•Dave Bicking, an auto mechanic and former Minneapolis City Council candidate.

•Will Shapira, a retired Roseville news and public relations man who shoots weekly e-mails on "stadium extortion" to politicians and journalists.

In years past, the liberal group Progressive Minnesota led the charge against publicly funded stadiums. But its successor organization, TakeAction Minnesota, is "staying out of this one," said Greta Bergstrom, TakeAction's communications director. "We just have a lot of things we're engaged on -- health care, GAMC (medical assistance), photo ID legislation."

That leaves things in the hands of people like David, who unveiled his website in late December. He has held a series of small meetings at private homes.

"The core group comes from various political perspectives, from right-wingers to the Green Party," he said.

On their side are polls showing broad opposition among Minnesotans to stadiums built with tax dollars.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, ranking member on the House Taxes Committee, said stadium opposition in the Legislature -- including Democrats and Republicans -- will emerge as soon as a bill is introduced.

"I expect we'll begin working together" to defeat a stadium plan, she said. "The preponderance of the subsidy accrues to the owner of the team. ... There's value in the quality-of-life argument [for a stadium], but the economic argument fails completely."

Estimates suggest a new stadium would cost $700 million to $900 million, depending on whether it has a roof. Under the three-legged funding model, the Vikings would pay one third of the cost of a roofless stadium. The rest would come from the state and a local government partner.

According to the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll, opposition to public funding for a Vikings stadium has hardened over the years. When the question was asked in January 2004, 65 percent of poll respondents said they were against it; last fall, it was 75 percent.

That last poll also showed that the success of Target Field, built with a Hennepin County sales tax, had changed some minds about publicly financed stadiums. While 29 percent approved of a public subsidy in 2006 for Target Field before construction began, 48 percent last fall said they approved of it.

A feeling that the fix is in

Bicking, an outspoken critic of the Target Field deal, said the ballpark's popularity is mainly a media creation.

"If you only talk to the people who go there and whose tickets are being heavily subsidized by Hennepin County taxpayers, of course you're going to think that's a success," he said.

A bigger problem for those who oppose subsidized stadiums, Bicking said, is feeling that the fix is in and that opposition is fruitless.

Still, speaking out can "change the terms of the debate, change the compromises or negotiations that eventually happen,'' he said. "If we wind up with something not quite as bad, it's still worth the work."

Lehmann, an organizer for Citizens for a Stadium Tax Referendum during the Twins ballpark debate, admitted the process has made her cynical. "The people with the power and the money and the connections are going to be the ones who rule the day," she said.

She added: "It will not keep me from going to the Capitol and saying what I have to say."

Since 1997, bills have been before the Legislature practically every year seeking public money for a pro sports facility.

"There's never going to be an end to this," Bicking said. "We are constantly going to be discussing stadiums and refurbished stadiums as long as there is money the owners think they can get from us. Why would they stop?"

Opponents prefer renovating the debt-free Metrodome (the new roof bought with insurance money guarantees another 20 years there, they say).

Another idea making the rounds: selling TCF Bank Stadium to the Vikings to rent back to the University of Minnesota and expand as needed.

The Vikings reject the first idea as a non-starter. The second appeals to neither the Vikings nor the U.

No matter, said Shapira, who constantly hammers team owner Zygi Wilf to reveal his net worth (it's $310 million, according to the current issue of Sports Illustrated).

"Let him get rich off of his own stadium," snapped Shapira. "I don't want to have to pay for his stadium."

Until a bill emerges, David said, opponents are identifying where legislators stand and are targeting those on the bubble for constituent phone calls. If and when the time comes to testify at the Capitol, he'll be there.

"We've already given them two stadiums, the Met Stadium and the Dome," David said. "I don't want the Vikings necessarily to leave. But if it means we have to make corporate welfare donations to them every year, then they have to leave."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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