Purple pride, politics and ponies at Canterbury Park provided the prelude and party for the Minnesota Vikings' season opener in San Diego on Sunday.
Savethevikes.org founder Cory Merrifield organized the event in Silks bar at the track to build support for a new Vikings stadium in Arden Hills. Merrifield took to the winner's circle with a microphone between races, bringing along supportive legislators to pump up the $1 billion plan and a possible racino at the track to help pay for it.
"My message today is: Time's running out," Merrifield said in an interview between presentations.
Fans began filing into the Vikings rally before the horses went off in the first race at 11 a.m. Fans signed petitions, got autographs from former Viking Bob Lurtsema, ate chicken wings, $1 hot dogs and nachos washed down with beer or soda.
In May, the Vikings and Ramsey County announced a deal to build a $1 billion stadium. The county would issue $350 million in bonds and pay them off with a countywide half-cent sales tax. The state would be expected to contribute $300 million.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, and a sponsor of the stadium bill, said, "The next month is really going to tell the story."
Lanning said the stadium would be easier to pass in a special session this year than in 2012.
The proposal is undergoing an in-depth fiscal and environmental review led by the Metropolitan Council at the behest of Gov. Mark Dayton. That report is due no later than Oct. 15. But prospects for a 2011 special session grew cloudier with the recent revelation that two top GOP legislators want a Ramsey County referendum on the tax increase. A referendum is a deal-breaker.
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, a sponsor of the current deal, urged fans at the Shakopee track to call their legislators in support of the deal -- without a referendum. "Our form of government is called a democracy. We don't do [referendum] for anything else; why would we do it for this?" Bennett asked.
Instead of a sales tax, House Transportation Finance Chairman Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, touted the easy "linkage" between a racino and a stadium. Beard said racino would bring in an estimated $100 million, enough for school aid and a new NFL stadium.
Track president Randy Sampson said he was fine with a racino linked to stadium financing. "If the legislators decide to put those two together, that makes sense. We certainly would be pleased with the outcome," he said.
Shakopee residents Beard and Merrifield weren't concerned that Vikings owner and real estate developer Zygi Wilf might build a burgeoning Zygiworld at the site and siphon business from the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns. "As a suburbanite, I'm not the least bit concerned about that," Beard said. "My attitude is, 'How do we get to yes on this?' We want to see it in Arden Hills instead of Beverly Hills."
Merrifield said if Wilf wants to put up the money, he should be able to do the development. "You want it to be successful. You want to build up businesses around there," Merrifield said.
The stadium deal didn't lack for enthusiasm at Silks, where fans watched the game on multiple screens.
Wearing purple, black, white and gray camouflage from his mohawk wig and painted face down to his pants, Red Wing resident and season-ticketholder Josh Lynch and his horn-wearing pal David Gunderson say they came to support the Arden Hills site because it will restore a crucial experience: tailgating and camaraderie. "We've got to show up and show our support," Lynch said. "Without all of us being together, we're going to potentially lose the Vikes."
Bob Halling of Lakeville was at the track for the horses, but called the stadium a "good thing" and said tailgating is "what's missing" from the current experience.
Shannon Sinclair of Lester Prairie brought her parents and sons Ben, 4, and Connor, 2, early to soak up the camaraderie. She said the Metrodome is "less than par" and she doesn't mind paying more in taxes for a new facility. "We need a new stadium, bottom line," she said.
Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson