Now under new management, the suites that caused such an uproar a year ago at U.S. Bank Stadium are getting fairly favorable reviews.
Seats in the two taxpayer-owned suites once occupied by politically connected friends and family have been taken by event promoters, well-heeled business owners and charitable groups, according to the first year-round report required in the wake of the controversy.
While skepticism remains about the value of these suites, the practices that forced out two top officials last year appear to have ended.
“I am pleased,” said Kathleen Blatz after looking over the list of attendees. Blatz became interim chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) after Michele Kelm-Helgen resigned.
“It appears that the purpose of the MSFA-amended policy is being met,” she said. “It was the hope of the MSFA that the suites could be used in a way to attract more events to U.S. Bank Stadium, increase tourism and raise revenue which, in turn, would ultimately benefit taxpayers and the larger community.”
At least one influential lawmaker still questions whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth on suites that sell for at least $200,000 a season. “You can market the stadium without taking up two full suites,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, chairwoman of the House State Government Finance Committee.
The MSFA’s use of the suites came under heavy scrutiny a year ago, was deemed unethical by the legislative auditor and triggered the resignations of both Kelm-Helgen and MSFA Executive Director Ted Mondale in February 2017.
The two had used the suites on the main concourse to entertain friends and family during Vikings games and high-priced concerts. Guests were treated to some $32,000 in free food and, in many cases, free parking.
After a legislative outcry, the MSFA adopted a policy prohibiting friends and family in the suites and ceded control of them to SMG Corp., the operator responsible for marketing and filling the arena when the Vikings aren’t playing their 10 home games each year.
SMG uses the two 18-person luxury suites during Vikings games to woo clients for the building’s many party and conference spaces.
“Getting them in the building when the building is alive and operating is priceless,” SMG General Manager Patrick Talty said.
Who’s in the suites now?
The MSFA also agreed to track and make public the names of suite users. Upon request, the MSFA provided the names of guests for the past year. Each guest is identified along with his or her corporate or organizational affiliation.
Most suite users came in groups of two to four — not large parties. On occasion, an MSFA board member joined them but didn’t bring a guest. Friends and family of the overseers or SMG employees don’t appear on the lists, nor do lobbyists or elected officials.
Guests at the Jan. 1 Vikings game against the Chicago Bears included two representatives each from Schwan’s, law firm Dorsey & Whitney, Ameriprise Financial, Thomson Reuters, Ergodyne, Meet Minneapolis, the Hiway Credit Union and MSFA Board Member Bill McCarthy.
The guests all had hosted events at the stadium or, in the case of convention bureau Meet Minneapolis, planned to market the building, according to the documents. “We think we had a really diverse and strong client list,” Talty said.
Rick Recker, the longtime organizer of indoor running events at the Metrodome and now the new stadium, was in the suites with a guest when the Vikings played the Los Angeles Rams in November.
“We want to make sure he’s coming back because we think it’s a great event to have,” Talty said.
The suites, which are between the 20- and 30-yard lines, cannot be sold during Vikings games, according to Talty, who cited the MSFA’s use agreement with the team. The Vikings are the building’s main tenant and paid more than half of the $1.1 billion cost of construction.
SMG did, however, sell the suites for other events, including the Monster Jam in December, the Guns N’ Roses concert last July and U2 in September.
Steve Norton, who owns Norton Realty in Mendota Heights, paid $290 each for 22 suite tickets for the U2 show as a thank-you to clients. “When you sell someone a $2 million house, you want to do something nice for them,” he said.
Norton called the experience in the suite fantastic. “I certainly had a good time.”
While the big events get the publicity, most of the 600 bookings for the stadium in the first 11 months were smaller. They included banquets, business meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs and holiday parties, Talty said. Altogether, events brought in 1.6 million people, including 660,000 for the 10 Vikings games.
More changes needed?
At the Capitol, Anderson is retooling a bill to regulate stadium operations that died in the legislative session last year. In addition to looking at how the suites are operated, she wants to reconsider changes to the composition of the board and more state oversight.
“Last year it was a response to misuse; this year we need to look at what would be the best use of a state asset,” she said of the suites. “Honestly, I don’t have the answer figured out. I’ve got an open mind, but I’m not convinced [marketing] is the best use of those suites.”
Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Chairman Mike Vekich and two of the four other MSFA board members, said he’s content with the operation as it is.
Widespread praise for the Super Bowl showed that the board and staff are working in the public interest, he said. “Thus, I do not presently see any need for legislative changes. However, I am always open to considering whatever ideas legislators might propose.”
After the problems at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Ballpark Authority (MBA) also changed its policy at Target Field, which opened in 2010. The MBA had an upper-level suite for the first six years before moving to the current location midway down the third-base line.
The authority had allowed members to use the suite. Starting last year, the suite has been available for charities through an online application process that has proved popular. The suite was booked by 47 different charities for 49 games, including three visits by families staying at the Ronald McDonald House.
For 2018, the MBA board approved offering 60 game dates to charities, with priority to groups that had not used it previously. MBA Executive Director Dan Kenney said 61 dates have been booked, with 30 of the nonprofits being first-time guests.