Secrecy shrouds Vikings stadium deal

The Vikings say $1 billion stadium plan, despite the absence of key details, would be ready to be part of a state budget solution.

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The proposed Vikings Stadium site at Arden Hills.

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For the past six months, the Minnesota Vikings' $1 billion plan to build a new stadium with taxpayer money has been crafted mostly behind closed doors.

Now, as Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders conduct their own private meetings to resolve the state's $5 billion projected deficit ahead of an expected Friday government shutdown, the Vikings say their stadium proposal will be ready for inclusion in any state budget solution.

But the stadium legislation, despite being released in early April, has yet to have a public hearing at the State Capitol.

The proposal, which features $650 million in public money, continues to be refined in private. Those with a stake in it are saying little or claiming, with some exasperation, to know even less.

State Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel recently paused in a lunch line to say that talks over how to pay for road improvements at a new stadium were continuing, but that he knew few details.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said, "I'm really wondering what really is going on, and why aren't we more transparent. I'm a member of the [Senate] Tax Committee ... you'd think I might be in on some kind of loop."

Hints of new details, meanwhile, routinely evaporate.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of the stadium legislation, said in late May that lawmakers were studying revisions submitted by the Vikings and Ramsey County to their original, 12-page principles of agreement. Nearly a month later, no details have been released.

As recently as a week ago, Dayton administration officials hinted there would be new details on how the Arden Hills stadium would be operated and owned. The day of the purported announcement came and went without a ripple.

Public hearings still possible?

But evidence suggests that Dayton and an influential group of public officials have been working on the project and talking optimistically of it coming together. Lanning and other legislators have insisted -- though somewhat vaguely -- that public hearings would be held before the project was voted upon.

"It's frustrating for me as a co-author" of the stadium legislation, said Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who said he, too, has been largely left in the dark.

Nelson said that with the state budget deficit taking center stage, there may not be much happening.

"You can't do [negotiating] in public,'' Nelson said. "If you do that, you're locked into your position ... it would be detrimental to negotiations."

Vikings stadium spokesman Lester Bagley said this week that the team was close to resolving a series of stadium-related issues and could be poised to have the project included in an overall budget agreement.

"I think we're close enough so [if] we were advised to wrap it up, we could sit down and hammer out the final agreement," said Bagley, the Vikings vice president for public affairs and stadium development.

Bagley said "a handful of issues," which he would not identify, were "being buttoned down" by negotiators.

Media 'on this like ... flies'

In response to those calling for more transparency, Bagley said, "This [stadium] conversation has been going on for more than 10 years, so I think the issues are pretty clear."

Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, one of the county's main stadium proponents, said when he goes to public meetings, he rarely is asked for stadium details. "You guys are on this like tsetse flies," he said to a reporter. "When something changes, then bang, it's on the front page. I've never seen something so transparent."

3 moments, elusive details

Three episodes show how details of stadium negotiations have proven to be elusive.

On April 14, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf suddenly appeared at the State Capitol. With the House in session, Wilf stood at the end of an adjoining hallway as a series of legislators approached and spoke to him privately. "I got a note that these folks wanted to talk," said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, who went to speak with Wilf.

What did the two talk about? "I had some input in terms of things that I thought were working, and things that I thought were working against him," Atkins said with a smile.

Wilf later that afternoon spoke to reporters for about six minutes in a Capitol hall but provided little new information. "I won't go into specifics of the bill," the owner said.

The second happened on May 17, after National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Dayton privately. State transportation officials huddled separately with Ramsey County officials about road improvements needed near a new Arden Hills stadium.

State officials had earlier said the improvements would cost at least $175 million, which Sorel said that day still had "some validity." The next day the state dropped the cost to $131 million. No explanation was offered for how the cost fell. The figure has reportedly been lowered a second time.

The most recent example came June 13 when Bagley and Bennett suddenly unveiled a new plan for paying for the road changes.

The next day Wilf and his brother, Mark, flew into the Twin Cities to meet privately with Dayton. After a nearly two-hour meeting, the parties said they were making progress, but revealed few details. A subsequent report said the Wilfs had increased their contribution to the project, though it has not been confirmed.

Ted Mondale, who chairs the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission and is Dayton's chief stadium negotiator, said the negotiations by necessity need to be kept private. "There's no sense in bringing out something that's not finished," he said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673 Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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