Fits, starts marked long stadium drive

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2012 - 6:44 AM
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In front of the State Capitol, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf hugged a fan as he arrived for the announcement the passing of a Vikings stadium bill.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Minnesota Vikings fans lined the walk to the Capitol, bowing and cheering as they saw team owner Zygi Wilf stride into view.

Once inside the ornate governor's reception room, Wilf flashed a brilliant smile and said the words the faithful had longed to hear: "We're here to stay, guys."

For more than a decade, the Minnesota Vikings have begged, pleaded and pushed for a new home to replace the aging Metrodome. They never overtly threatened to leave but let the pressure of two new stadiums planned for teamless Los Angeles do its work.

On Thursday, the drama came to an end. A purple-clad knot of Vikings supporters and the team's ubiquitous stadium salesman, Lester Bagley, watched a TV monitor in the Capitol hallways in the last moments of the Senate debate, focused on a board where the green and red bulbs would instantly telegraph the final verdict.

Finally, 36 bulbs flashed green, 30 bulbs flashed red.

Bagley exchanged a few hugs and then said, "Now the fun part starts."

The team promises a state-of-the-art facility that, once done, will house the team for 10 games a year and host a bevy of amateur athletics, civic events and other entertainment year-round.

A long road

To get here, the Vikings first endured session after session where they were brushed aside. Over the years, the Twins got a new baseball stadium. Then the Gophers got their new football stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. Then the roof of the Metrodome collapsed from the weight of a freak snowstorm, temporarily displacing the team.

This year, a state still emerging from a recession with a still-fragile economy appeared ill-equipped to move ahead with a nearly $1 billion sports facility.

But becoming and remaining a "major-league" town exerts its own gravitational force at the Capitol.

"It's our identity -- that's what we're worried about losing here," Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, told the Senate. "The Minnesota Vikings, our history, our heritage ..."

Winning the yearslong endurance test was credited to a "perfect storm" of events, according to the unflappable sponsors, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, and other observers. They cited the flour-sack video image of snow pouring into the deflating Metrodome in December 2010; the strong and enthusiastic support of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who took office the month after the roof collapsed; the end of the lease that bound the team to the Dome; the real possibility of a move to warmer climes; and the stern warning from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Dayton and legislative leaders weeks ago.

Lanning and Rosen worked with legislators without regard to party and endured the slings and arrows of their fellow members.

Sen. John Marty, a DFLer from Roseville, still voted no. Thursday's yes vote, he said, "says something is tragically wrong about our priorities around here."

Rosen likened the process to childbirth. "After it's done," Rosen said, "you've got the product, and you're like, 'I'm sorry I was angry at you -- I'm sorry I ripped your head off.'"

As Lanning and Rosen left the chambers, they were greeted by a crowd of horn-wearing, purple-painted Vikings fans. One fan at the Capitol, David Gunderson, had painted "Thank u" in white greasepaint on his upturned neck. A group broke into "Skol, Vikings" as they marched down the Capitol stairs.

"This is it. This is it," said a stunned Larry Spooner, the die-hard Vikings fan who haunted the Legislature every step of the bill's slow passage.

Tears rolled down Spooner's face. "This is the best day of my life."

Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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