Vikings stadium clears final hurdle

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2012 - 9:36 AM

The 7-6 vote represents a political victory for Minneapolis mayor. A foe called it a huge corporate subsidy.

Despite bitter divisions, the Minneapolis City Council made a decades-long commitment to subsidizing professional sports with a 7-6 vote Thursday to build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

The vote eliminates the final political obstacle in the Vikings' long quest for a new stadium. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the stadium bill into law earlier this month. If the council ratifies the vote at its regular meeting Friday, the deal will represent one of the largest capital investments in Minneapolis history -- if not the largest.

The city is sharing the costs of the $1 billion stadium with the state and the team. By redirecting sales taxes, the city will contribute to a massive new football stadium at the site of the Metrodome while also reserving funds to upgrade and pay debt on the city-owned Target Center, home of the Timberwolves.

"I'm very proud of this because we've taken one of the most complicated and long-running public issues in the history of this state and come up with a plan that makes sense for the people of Minneapolis," said Mayor R.T. Rybak, a onetime opponent of sports subsidies, after Thursday's vote.

With its vote, the council also nullified a 15-year-old city law that requires voter approval of any stadium subsidies of $10 million or more. The momentous nature of the debate was not lost on council members, who frequently wondered aloud how it would be viewed by future generations. Supporters said it would create needed jobs and aid the city's budget, while opponents countered that it bypassed the will of the people and makes no economic sense.

"I'm not really sure I want to be part of a government any more -- at the state level and at the city level -- that behaves this way," said Council Member Lisa Goodman, an opponent of the plan.

The most immediate beneficiaries of the new stadium swarmed into the chambers as soon as doors opened Thursday morning: construction union members wearing reflective yellow jackets and hard hats, followed by die-hard fans adorned with Vikings garb from horns to shields.

Rybak's victory

The vote represented perhaps the biggest political victory for Rybak in his 10 years as mayor. Rybak overcame a year of setbacks and skepticism over his position that the best place for the Vikings was right where they are today.

For much of last year, the Vikings declared they would relocate to Arden Hills, and as recently as March, Rybak lacked the votes to get the deal through the council. His council majority did not materialize until Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, who represents south Minneapolis, switched her position and supported the plan.

The city will finance its portion of the stadium using a series of sales taxes that will continue until 2046 -- a citywide sales tax, downtown restaurant and liquor taxes and a hotel tax.

Those taxes currently pay for the city's convention center, but money will become available when debt on that facility is paid down in 2020.

The total city subsidy will be about $309 million for construction and operations, or $678 million when accounting for interest over the life of the deal. That figure could rise to a maximum of $890 million if the sales taxes grow by 5 percent per year, leaving the city with about $1.4 billion to use for economic development -- after it pays its other obligations.

Throughout the public debate, opponents were united by an insistence that Minneapolis residents take a vote on the deal, citing the 1997 charter amendment.

The city attorney said the deal never triggered a vote since the taxes technically belonged to the state, but the final state legislation nonetheless included language to nullify the charter amendment.

"For the city to go to the state, and to override the charter, to me is a betrayal of the citizens and the vote that they clearly expressed themselves on in 1997," said Council Member Gary Schiff, a coauthor of the charter amendment.

Supporters trumpeted the jobs that will be created by building a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

"There's a strong link between ... the things we like to do for fun and the jobs we get to support our families," said Council Member Don Samuels. "And this is the link right here. We're making that connection today."

Council President Barb Johnson said being a regional center means making tough decisions, like those which created the convention center and the Metrodome.

"Millions of people attend sporting events," Johnson said. "And I don't want to denigrate them. But they're part of what makes us great."

Target Center

One of Rybak's biggest selling points for the stadium deal is the upgrading and paying debt on the city-owned Target Center, which requires an annual city subsidy. By locking in the sales taxes until 2046, the city will pay off debt on the facility and perform a $135 million renovation that will be split with private interests.

Council Member Cam Gordon warned that the purchase of the Target Center in 1995 -- an annual drain on city finances -- likely looked just as wise on paper as the current proposal. "We can't predict the future," Gordon said. "We don't know what's going to happen."

He added that he "never imagined" he would be on a council that approved what may be "the largest corporate subsidy in the history of Minneapolis. And maybe, who knows, the biggest boondoggle that anybody will be able to remember."

Rybak said that despite the heated rhetoric from the council, he's confident that both sides can work together to make the deal work come Monday morning.

"This is a group of people that has navigated through crime waves, through bridges collapsing, through tornadoes, through multiple other issues, and we've always found a way to work together and we will again," Rybak said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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