The Ramsey County Board moved firmly forward on a possible Minnesota Vikings stadium site Tuesday, the same day Gov. Mark Dayton said it was doubtful a 2011 special session of the Legislature would be held.
In a surprising unanimous vote, the seven-member board agreed to buy the 430-acre former munitions plant from the federal General Services Administration for $28.5 million. But it will be up to the state to scrounge up the money for it.
The county has until Aug. 1, 2012, to cancel the deal without paying a penalty. Absent state funding, the deal will not go through.
Financing for a $1.1 billion stadium on the site, however, remains a huge problem. The Vikings say they will pay $407 million, requiring a $650 million check from the state at a time of tight finances.
Until now, the governor was pushing for a special session focused on the stadium before the regular 2012 legislative session.
"I'm doubtful that there will be a special session at this point," Dayton said, because time is running out for 2011. "I don't believe we are going to get to a point of being able to have a specific proposal or two specific proposals."
The governor emphasized, however, that he isn't punting on the stadium.
"The Vikings deserve an answer, the people of Minnesota deserve an answer," he said. "We should make a decision one way or the other and not just avoid it because it is a politically uncomfortable vote."
Issue has been at a standstill
The Ramsey County vote marked the first tangible movement on the issue in weeks.
"It's forward progress. Hopefully we're one step closer to making it happen in Arden Hills," Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley said.
Commissioner Tony Bennett, an architect of the plan, said of the site: "We're shovel ready. We don't have to go out and buy buildings in the area," referring to two proposed Minneapolis sites with multiple owners that would require site assembly.
Activity promoting a Minneapolis stadium continued Tuesday, as downtown business and civic leaders attended a presentation on the Farmers Market and Linden Avenue sites that came with colorful renderings showing how stadiums might look there. Sam Grabarski, head of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said business leaders were getting ready to nominate downtown options should the Arden Hills plan fail.
"We are still working with state business leaders to make certain that the Vikings have the opportunity to have their first choice site fully vetted, but we are also expecting to be fully ready to be able to advance one or more Minneapolis sites when wanted by the Vikings and the governor and state elected leaders," Grabarski said.
Bennett and Commissioner Rafael Ortega emphasized Tuesday's vote on Arden Hills removed concerns about uncertain -- and potentially skyrocketing -- costs for the land and the cleanup. Under the deal, the federal government is responsible for remediation of the land to industrial standards.
Ortega: No worries about time
Ortega also dismissed concerns about the timeline for construction that was raised in a report released last month by the Metropolitan Council.
"We're very confident not only can we get a Vikings stadium built by 2015, we can build anything there by 2015," Ortega said. He declined to discuss what other options might be out there.
But there still is no agreement on how to pay for a stadium. Dayton has ruled out a countywide half-cent sales tax, and now expanded gambling has become the focus of speculation for possible funding sources.
Board Chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt and Commissioner Janice Rettman said they were endorsing the deal, not for the Vikings but for the opportunity to clean up and develop the polluted site as well as add to the hundreds of acres of adjacent public parkland.
Reinhardt repeatedly said no county sales taxes or property taxes would be used to finance the acquisition, including the $300,000 in earnest money the county is fronting for the deal. She insisted it be reimbursed as soon as possible.
In addition to Bennett and Ortega, Commissioners Toni Carter, Jim McDonough and Jan Parker spoke up for the team. "The message needs to be we continue to do what we need to do to move forward with the Vikings," McDonough said.