Morrie Lanning couldn’t wait for the legislative session to end.
It was May 2012 and after months of contentious debate over financing a new Vikings stadium, the politicians and team struck a deal that seemed, after years of lobbying, to finally put the issue to rest.
“In the final stages, I said many times ‘I want to see us decide this and get it over with and get it off the front page,’ ” said Lanning, the House author of the stadium bill who retired from the Legislature that spring. “I thought it was done.”
Not even close.
Sixteen months after the Vikings and state political leaders signed off on a $975 million partnership to build a new downtown Minneapolis stadium, and just days before development agreements on the project are expected to be finalized, the noise and controversy surrounding the high-profile deal linger.
A plan to fund part of construction with revenues from untested electronic gambling games was officially declared a bust last week. Potentially hefty fees for stadium seat licenses have again angered the governor and threaten to alienate loyal season-ticket holders.
When a New Jersey judge Monday ordered team owners Zygi, Mark and Leonard Wilf to pay $84.5 million in damages to former business partners who sued them for fraud over a 1980s real estate deal, some critics pounced again, raising more questions about the state’s due diligence of the owners and their legal troubles at the time the stadium deal was cut last year.
As the Vikings and Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the public board overseeing construction, continue to negotiate final lease and development agreements, stadium critics to Gov. Mark Dayton, the project’s lead cheerleader, have weighed in, hoping to reshape pieces of the deal in the final hours before the shovels hit the dirt and construction begins. On Thursday, Friday’s authority meeting to approve both was postponed at the last minute and rescheduled for next week.
“It’s late,” said Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom. “But it’s not too late.”
A ‘better deal’
When Dayton, who promoted the project as the “People’s Stadium,” last week pushed the Wilfs to put more of their own money into the deal rather than pass some construction costs to season-ticket holders in the form of seat license fees, it served as a final attempt to eke out a slightly more attractive deal for taxpayers and fans.
But it also renewed concerns among some stadium skeptics that the state got outplayed by the team and the Wilfs in 2012.
Barrett, a longtime critic, last week urged Dayton to lobby even harder, demanding that the Wilfs increase their equity stake to reduce taxpayer exposure by nearly $250 million.
As it stands, the team is responsible for $477 million of the stadium’s $975 million construction cost. The state and the city of Minneapolis will pay the rest.
“People who understand and know the business of football could have negotiated a better deal,” Barrett said.
Stephen Ross, associate professor of sport management at the University of Minnesota, said that at the time the deal was reached, “the Vikings and NFL were kind of strong-arming” legislators by implying that the franchise could be sold or moved.
“From the bottom of their hearts from a business perspective, the Wilfs and NFL did not want to move the Vikings,” Ross said. “It’s just too big of a market and rivalry in history that goes along with it. They didn’t want to do it. And I think if the state really pushed back and said ‘no, no, no, we’re not going to contribute any more than $200 million,’ I think the Wilfs would have put more money in.”