A Senate panel OK'd a new study on replacing the Metrodome, prompting foes of a publicly funded Vikings stadium to cry foul. The Vikings say nothing's happening for this session.
A new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings suddenly took the field Thursday, as legislative proponents pushed through a "small step forward" and critics, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the initiative was badly timed as state officials face a budget shortfall.
With little advance notice, the Senate Taxes Committee authorized a $2 million study, to be completed by January, on how to replace the Metrodome. Though the study would not be paid for with new tax money, opponents immediately cast the move as a not-so-subtle step toward building a nearly $1 billion stadium for the Vikings that would need large doses of public money.
Later in the day, Pawlenty criticized the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns the Metrodome and pushed for the study. "I'm disappointed that they would take $2 million and spend it on a study of financing options for a Vikings stadium. It's been studied 15 times," he said. "It's not rocket science."
Lease expires in 2011
But the Vikings and commission officials said the study was necessary to position the team to push for a new stadium at the State Capitol next year, and said it was not a sign that a taxpayer-supported stadium would come before legislators this year.
They added, however, that with the Vikings' lease at the Metrodome due to expire in 2011, time was running out to address the team's desire to replace the 26-year-old facility.
Thursday's move came two years after the Vikings lost a bid at the Capitol to have taxpayers help fund a new stadium for the team but watched as taxpayer-supported stadiums for the Minnesota Twins and the University of Minnesota football team were approved.
"It was extremely difficult two years ago - extremely difficult," said Dean Johnson, the former Senate majority leader who helped bring about funding for the Twins and university stadiums. He said the Vikings likely now faced a "more difficult" hurdle.
Johnson, who has since become a University of Minnesota regent, said he had informally proposed having the Vikings play at the new university stadium instead of building their own facility but said the idea received little support. "It met with cold water," he said.
No partnership yet
After the Senate Taxes Committee vote, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said the Vikings and the National Football League were prepared to pay $250 million toward a $954 million stadium, which would include a retractable roof. Bagley said that the team did not yet have a government partner for the project, such as the Twins had when Hennepin County agreed to levy a countywide sales tax for the baseball stadium, which will open in 2010.
"We're going to need partners at all levels - state, local, regional," Bagley said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, the lead county board supporter for the Twins stadium, said Thursday he had little contact with the Vikings and downplayed a possible Hennepin County role in a new Vikings stadium. "There's been really almost nothing," he said.
"They're usually talking about in the future, kind of far off in the future, and I'm happy," he said. "I'm not ready to have the conversation yet. It's been fine by me that they say, 'Hi, hello, talk to you later - maybe.'"
Bagley said the Vikings still envisioned a stadium on the Metrodome footprint surrounded by new development, and was continuing talks with Avista Capital Partners, the owners of the Star Tribune. Last year the Vikings and the newspaper had a tentative $45 million deal in which the Star Tribune would sell four blocks near the Metrodome to the team. The sale later fell through.
Last month, Star Tribune publisher Chris Harte said the company had placed five city blocks the company owned up for sale, including the newspaper's main building.
"We're always in communication with the management, as well as the folks at Avista," Bagley said Thursday. "We'll have to see where that ends up."
Greg Evans, an Avista vice president, said the company would have no comment.
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388