Suddenly, a blitz of stadium ideas - and plenty of critics

A special Vikings license plate and extended sales taxes in Minneapolis are among the proposals in play at the Capitol.

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This artist rendering provided by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission shows the design plan for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium.

Photo: Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission

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Plans for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium are emerging with fresh detail at the Legislature, with as many as a dozen funding schemes being floated -- from extended sales taxes in Minneapolis to a special Vikings license plate.

Several legislators say they are aiming to unveil a comprehensive stadium bill toward the end of this month, despite a mounting chorus of critics.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday acknowledged that he expects a bill to emerge before the legislative session ends in May. "So early discussions are something the Vikings are sharing with legislators," he said.

On Tuesday, 20 legislators gathered for a freewheeling, closed-door session with Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, talking through a number of ideas, including a proposal for a less-expensive stadium paid for by extending special local sales taxes in Minneapolis.

Pawlenty said he would oppose raising taxes "at a state level," but said "there might be some creative alternatives, and we are happy to explore those with the Vikings and with the Legislature."

One plan under active consideration calls for a cheaper stadium than the $870 million facility that was unveiled in December. The $698 million stadium would be financed for the first 10 years by the team. After that, special entertainment taxes in Minneapolis levied to pay off the Minneapolis Convention Center bonds would be diverted to the stadium, according to Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. The convention center debt is due to be paid off by 2020.

That plan, not yet released publicly, already has come under fire from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who said Wednesday that the stadium is a statewide facility and funding it should not fall just to the city or Hennepin County.

Rybak, a leading DFL gubernatorial candidate, has been quietly floating his own stadium plan to buy the land surrounding the Metrodome at its low point and capture rising values to recoup any public investment.

At a fundraiser last week, Rybak, who had opposed public subsidies for large developments in the past, told supporters that "I will negotiate for a Vikings stadium." He added, "I will not be a chump in negotiating for the public. ... We're going to require the developer to buy the land around it in partnership with the public. Over [a] period of time, that land will escalate in value." The taxpayers, he said, would have to share in that.

Hennepin County helped pay for the newly opened Twins stadium with a 0.15 percent countywide sales tax that is being eyed by Vikings stadium proponents. Weaver said the Vikings could tap into that tax, which he said generates $2 million a year more than what is needed for bond payments and other obligations.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who supported the Twins stadium tax, objected to that proposal. "That's kind of egregious, to think they're going to come after that," he said. Stenglein said he'd rather use the extra money to retire the Twins stadium bonds early.

Pawlenty made it clear Wednesday that any successful stadium plan will need a willing local partner.

"If you look at stadium deals around the country, almost every one of them involves a local partner coming forward saying they want to be part of the deal," he said. "So far, the Vikings have not been able to solidify that, but I know they are working on it."

Pawlenty characterized the stadium's prospects for this session as "unlikely but possible," saying that once lawmakers make progress on the budget and education reforms, "we'll be happy to put an oar in the water and see if we can help the Vikings stadium."

Big hill to climb

Each of the proposals for a Vikings stadium comes with its own critics and liabilities, which could explain why legislators have shied away from public comment even as they brainstorm in private over how to avoid losing a Minnesota icon.

The Vikings have said they will not play in the Metrodome past 2011, when their lease expires, unless they have a deal on a new stadium. The most likely site is the Metrodome, although suburban and even exurban sites have been mentioned.

"We're not going to kick people off health care to pay for a stadium," said Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who was at the Wilf meeting.

Nelson said there was an overriding sentiment at the meeting for user-related revenue. If Minneapolis wants the team, he said, "they could offer up that."

Nelson said that most Minnesotans want to keep the Vikings. "If we want them here," he said, "this is the price we're going to have to pay." He noted that the team has paid more than $260 million in taxes over the years. "It would be like losing a major employer," he said.

"There's a feeling, even on the governor's part, that there are ways to do this," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who also was at the meeting. Lanning is the lead Republican for the House property and local sales tax division.

Jay Cowles, a Rybak supporter who was at last week's fundraiser, said of the stadium, "I think it's something we need to get done, but it's not a high priority."

Until 1998 Cowles' family owned the Star Tribune, which continues to be a major owner of land near the Metrodome, which Wilf has said is key to his plans to fully develop the area. The newspaper had a tentative agreement with the Vikings three years ago to sell much of that land, but the deal fell through.

Rybak, a onetime Star Tribune reporter, and Mike Sweeney, the Star Tribune's board chair, said in separate interviews that they have not discussed Rybak's proposal for a public-team land partnership with one another.

Sweeney said the Star Tribune is not actively negotiating to sell the property and that disposing of the land is no longer critical to the newspaper's finances. "We've got plenty of cash, and we're profitable," said Sweeney of the paper, which recently emerged from bankruptcy. "I can certainly see us holding it for an extended period of time, until we got what we thought was a full and fair price."

Bill Lester, longtime executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns the Metrodome, said that having Wilf, a major real estate developer, as a participant might help a proposal to tap the potential value of the surrounding land.

"There's a theory that it'll work," said Lester, who said the attempt 30 years ago to develop land around the Metrodome failed because too many people assumed that simply building the Metrodome would lead to other development.

David Fields, a development coordinator for Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc., which represents the neighborhoods surrounding the Metrodome, said he too welcomed Rybak's plan and said it should not be compared to the failed efforts of three decades ago. "It was a different time," he said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673 Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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