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Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday threatened to undo the historic and hard-fought deal to build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium if team owners insist on passing on to fans a portion of the team's share of the $975 million cost.
In a sternly worded letter to the team owners, the governor objected to a proposal to charge seat-licensing fees in exchange for premier seating choices, a move that could mean big-spenders boot longtime season-ticket holders to less desirable seats.
Fans of average means supported the stadium, "not just rich Minnesotans, because they believed the Vikings are also their team," Dayton wrote. "If a new stadium were to betray that trust, it would be better that it not be built." Dayton said he could urge lawmakers to open the contract to remove the option of seat licenses.
The team owners stood their ground on the issue, saying that seat licensing was included in the final agreement passed by the Legislature.
"Stadium builder's licenses were vetted by the Legislature, testified to by Vikings and state of Minnesota negotiators, and most importantly, specifically reflected in the stadium legislation that was passed and signed by the governor," the team said.
The issue has erupted as team owners and local officials are already dealing with a tight deadline for the complex construction project. Meanwhile, the Legislature is in the midst of a major change, with Democrats taking control in January. Several Twin Cities lawmakers who were deeply skeptical of the stadium plan and the team's contribution are expected to take over legislative leadership positions.
In recent days, the team sent an e-mail survey to season-ticket holders to gauge their willingness to pay thousands of dollars more for personal seat licenses or "stadium builder's licenses" to secure the best seats. The fee, most likely a one-time payment, would be on top of the annual cost of season tickets.
The stadium financing legislation approved last spring stipulates that revenue generated from the seat licenses would go toward the Vikings' share of the construction cost. The state and city of Minneapolis are contributing $498 million to stadium construction, with the team picking up the remainder through an NFL loan, stadium naming rights, sponsorships and, possibly, licensing fees.
"I strongly oppose shifting any part of the team's responsibility for those costs onto Minnesota Vikings fans," Dayton wrote in his letter to Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf. "This private contribution is your responsibility. Not theirs. I said this new stadium would be a 'People's Stadium,' not a 'Rich People's Stadium.' I meant it then, and I mean it now."
The stadium legislation gives the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which is working with the team to oversee development of the project, the right to own and sell the seat licenses, although the revenue would go to the Vikings.
"Reportedly the purpose for this arrangement is to shield revenue from taxes," Dayton wrote. "If true, I deplore it."
Dayton said he would press authority members not to sell the licenses. If that doesn't work, he said he would go back to the Legislature.
Bleeding purple, to a point
The Vikings have consistently expressed interest in the seat license concept, but have never committed themselves to it.
Several season-ticket holders, however, have said that it was clear from the survey questions that the team was serious about establishing a one-time seat license fee, similar to that in place at many NFL venues.
Doug Carlson is a passionate Vikings fan who has been a season-ticket holder for 15 years. After spending years jockeying for better seats, he finally landed two in his most cherished area, more than a dozen rows up in one of the end zones.
He is fuming about the seat licensing plans, and says he fears that some high roller will send him to less desirable seats.
Carlson said he told the ticket clerk that if the team imposes seat license fees, he's done.
"I bleed purple, but I am not going let them suck it out of me, either," Carlson said.
Team vice president Lester Bagley said last week that the Vikings had made no decisions on seat licenses or established any fees. He said the survey was done to evaluate the option and the market. He declined to make it available, calling it proprietary.
He added, however, that with the team responsible for $477 million in construction costs, "we're looking at all avenues" for financing.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, said Tuesday that she had not seen the survey, even though the team's e-mail to ticket holders stated that the authority and team were conducting research.
She said that while seat licensing fees were "always an option" for the team under the legislation approved last spring, "there never was a specific dollar amount or example that was discussed" during discussions over the stadium financing bill.
Kelm-Helgen, a former Dayton staffer, said she'd been contacted by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and other "elected officials" Tuesday who expressed support for Dayton's stance.
She said she had not spoken with the authority's four other members, but added, "We'll certainly not make any decisions quickly before a lot of public discussion."
Dayton told the Wilfs in his letter that, "I am greatly distressed by these developments and the future they portend. We negotiated in good faith. Not surprisingly, given the project's magnitude and complexity, some details were not fully understood and some differences still remain. They must be resolved consistent with Minnesota standards and values."