Minneapolis council holds the line on Vikings stadium

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2012 - 12:55 AM

A seven-member bloc on the City Council favors a referendum on any Viking stadium subsidy.

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Minneapolis City Council Members Barbara Johnson, Meg Tuthill, Lisa Goodman spoke at the end of a City Council meeting this week.

The weight of a football stadium has descended on a skeptical Minneapolis City Council.

Despite pressure from the governor, the mayor and Vikings boosters, a seven-member council majority say they're taking their cues from constituents opposed to a $300 million public sports subsidy without a referendum.

Ninety percent of the city e-mails pouring into his office say "stay strong, way to go," said Council Member Gary Schiff. "My constituents continue to applaud every single time I say that I cannot vote for this deal."

After months of maneuvering at the Capitol, stadium attention is turning to a bloc at City Hall that could control the fate of Vikings stadium efforts. Though the state hasn't presented its own funding plan and the council has no bill to vote on, Gov. Mark Dayton put the project on local shoulders Tuesday. "They're going to have to decide whether they can support a stadium project in Minneapolis or not," Dayton said, two weeks after alleging that they "carp about everything and trash everything."

Seven of the 13 council members -- representing south Minneapolis, downtown and University neighborhoods -- have said they oppose the mayor's plan to pay the city's share of a $1 billion stadium using existing hospitality taxes, absent a citywide referendum. The state and the team are expected to pay for the rest.

The governor's recent comments about the council haven't sat well with Council Member Lisa Goodman, who said the larger problem is the Legislature not wanting the whole state to pay for a statewide resource.

"I am done being dissed by the governor," said Goodman, who represents downtown. "Just because he can't get the Republicans to see it his way, he wants to badmouth local elected officials in his own party? I understand he's frustrated, but come on."

Mayor R.T. Rybak is pushing the stadium deal, which has so far garnered support from all three council members who represent north Minneapolis, including Council President Barbara Johnson, Don Samuels and Diane Hofstede, and Council Member John Quincy, whose district is in south Minneapolis. Council Members Meg Tuthill and Kevin Reich haven't publicly stated which side they're on, though Reich said Friday that he may have to support a citywide vote.

The glue holding opponents together is the 15-year-old charter requirement to hold a referendum on sports facilities costing the city more than $10 million -- a vote Rybak wants to bypass. It's what prompted Council Member Sandra Colvin Roy to declare her opposition, creating the majority bloc. It's also what fuels Schiff, who traces the rise in his political career to his co-authorship of the referendum language -- before it was approved by nearly 70 percent of city voters.

"This was where I cut my teeth, opposing taxpayer waste through these mega-giveaways in professional sports facilities," Schiff said.

Schiff said he could support a plan funded by gaming dollars, user fees, a statewide drink tax, or even if owners chipped in more than 50 percent of the funds. But his stance against the mayor's plan is firm, reinforced by a litany of supportive e-mails and applause like he received at a neighborhood meeting Tuesday night.

A sampling of those e-mails from the public dismiss the Vikings an "octopus organization" akin to Boss Tweed, insist there are more important priorities for the city, and slam "corporate welfare" for a losing team during "fiscally difficult times."

"In the ward, by and large, more often than not [I'm] told to kind of hold my ground," said Council Member Cam Gordon, an opponent of the mayor's plan. Gordon recently received an e-mail from Urbandale, Iowa, highlighting the loss of revenue if out-of-state fans stop visiting Minneapolis.

Gordon, the only Green Party member of the council, said without a referendum the plan is a "non-starter" for him, though he has deep concerns about investing that much money in a professional sports team. He notes that no one has presented the council with a bill, so it is "hard to keep sharing opinions and expressing things when you don't actually have the proposal in front of you."

Council Member Robert Lilligren, who has received messages from as far away as Moorhead, hears from many constituents who are critical of "subsidizing a stadium for billionaires." He has a broad opposition to the city subsidizing a professional sports stadium.

"A lot of people are going to make a lot of money off of this facility," Lilligren said. "And to me it would be more fair for those who are going to profit from it to pay for it."

Council Member Betsy Hodges also has philosophical problems with public stadium subsidies. Those views solidified more than a decade ago, when she co-chaired a commission that examined private financing of a Twins ballpark. There are better returns on investment, she says.

"If we were to give this level of subsidy to small business owners in the state of Minnesota, our economy would thrive far more," Hodges said.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden believes that the framework of the mayor's plan is "flawed." "I have not yet seen a plan that does not have a hole or does not have a substantial risk of putting additional unfair and unsustainable burdens on taxpayers of Minneapolis," Glidden said.

Colvin Roy, the latest opponent of the plan, said her position hasn't changed.

In addition to Dayton, there are others who believe the council is missing an opportunity. Cory Merrifield, founder SaveTheVikes.org, pointed to the mayor's proposal to lower property taxes by using the hospitality taxes both to finance a stadium and invest in Target Center.

"When you look at what Mayor Rybak has put together, I don't know that they're going to get a deal like this ever again," Merrifield said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for them."

Merrifield has urged local supporters to contact the council. He said once a written plan is in front of them, he will mobilize a broader Midwestern network to do the same.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of stadium legislation, said it's possible to move forward without the Minneapolis council -- though it's not "the way government ought to work."

"Technically, can we do something without their support? Yes," he said. "Practically, should we? No."

Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report. Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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