The Minnesota Vikings agreed Thursday to cooperate with a study to build a new stadium with a retractable roof in downtown Minneapolis near the Metrodome, a move that raised more doubts about the team's troubled stadium plans in Anoka County.
The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, owners and operators of the Metrodome, said a consultant yet to be hired would complete a report for the commission by Feb. 1 on the possibility of a new downtown Vikings stadium. The proposed stadium would be part of a wider revitalization of the area surrounding the Metrodome.
Executive Director Bill Lester said the commission doesn't intend to submit a plan for a stadium to the upcoming Legislature. Lester, along with other city and civic leaders, was vague about how a new downtown stadium would be financed, other than to say it would likely be less expensive than the Anoka County plan.
"It is our responsibility to try to keep the Vikings in Minnesota for the next 30 years," Roy Terwilliger, the commission's chairman, said in announcing the study.
While the Vikings -- who have played in the Metrodome for 24 years -- said Thursday they remain committed to Anoka County and still prefer an open-air stadium, their agreement to help with the study was the strongest indication yet that they would consider staying in downtown Minneapolis.
In the past four months, even as the team continued talks with Anoka County, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf has met with Minneapolis officials to discuss development opportunities. He also has met with the publisher of the Star Tribune, which owns five blocks near the Metrodome.
Even more telling Thursday was that Anoka County officials, who have been working with the team to have their own updated stadium plan ready by Jan. 15 for legislative approval, said they didn't know about the Vikings' agreement to participate in the study. Anoka County wants a retractable roof, which the Vikings have repeatedly rejected.
Nobody asked about the retractable roof at Thursday's meeting, but Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of public affairs and stadium development, said afterward that the idea of a retractable roof came from the commission, not the Vikings. "Our position hasn't changed. Our preference is open air," Bagley said. The issue of the retractable roof sank the hopes of a Vikings stadium package in the Legislature earlier this year because nobody was willing to pay for it.
'A confusing group'
Anoka County's chief stadium negotiator reacted to the Minneapolis study announcement with dismay.
"I have no idea what they're doing," said Steve Novak. "They're becoming, more and more, a confusing group of people to work with." Novak said the team's "diversionary activities" were effectively "fouling up any kind of political strategy to get positive action" on the Anoka County proposal at the Legislature starting in January.
Novak said the county's agreement with the Vikings had been based on a handshake.
"Handshakes in Anoka County work pretty well. I guess we're discovering that maybe handshakes in New Jersey don't work quite as well," he said, referring to Wilf's home state.
But it was unclear how much traction a new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis might have.
"Where this leads is uncertain," Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak said of the downtown stadium study. "Big things are about to happen there," he said, referring to redevelopment activity near the Metrodome, where the Vikings have a lease to play through 2011. With the Metrodome's other two major tenants, the Minnesota Twins and the University of Minnesota, already building new stadiums, the Metrodome's future is in doubt.
Sam Grabarski, the president of the Downtown Council, which represents many of downtown Minneapolis' leading corporations, said council officials had been briefed on the stadium study and have "always thought the best home for the Vikings was in downtown Minneapolis."
He said a stadium proposal that includes a climate-controlled facility surrounded by related development -- much like what Wilf had proposed in Anoka County with his multi-faceted Northern Lights concept -- would be better received by downtown corporate officials. A plan to build a new Vikings stadium by itself "would be a non-starter," he said.
But Grabarski, Rybak and others said financing details for such a project downtown -- especially who would match the $280 million Anoka County has pledged to a new stadium -- would not come until a detailed development plan was completed.
Bagley, in explaining the team's decision to participate in the downtown stadium study, said the team was simply trying to make a prudent business decision.
The latest stadium developments come just days after Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart said that a proposed stadium in Blaine -- which had a $675 million price tag when the Legislature did not approve it last spring -- is now expected to cost more than $800 million. That does not include road improvements that the Minnesota Department of Transportation projected could cost as much as $270 million.
"There's an urgency to solve our issue," Bagley said Thursday.