The Minnesota Vikings reluctantly agreed Tuesday to meet with Minneapolis officials to explore staying in the state's largest city but also worked to persuade a packed Senate hearing room that the team is ready to build a new stadium in Ramsey County.
The four-hour hearing was the first for the Vikings at the State Capitol and signaled that the long and contentious stadium debate had entered a more serious phase, with a second hearing set for next Tuesday.
But the hearing left unanswered many of the stadium's most fundamental questions, including how to fund nearly $650 million in public costs for the project and whether the team even needs a new stadium or will lose money without one.
"There is no done deal here as far as I'm aware of," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, who chairs the influential Senate Taxes Committee and presided over Tuesday's hearing. "There is no fait accompli."
In one of the hearing's pivotal moments, Ortman pointedly told Lester Bagley, the team's vice president for stadium development and public affairs, that it would be "in your best interest" to meet again with Minneapolis officials before partnering with Ramsey County and committing to a $1.1 billion stadium in Arden Hills.
Bagley said the team would do so but said of Ramsey County that "we think it's important that we stick with the local partner that sticks with us."
After his testimony, Bagley was more straightforward. "If the chair of the Senate Taxes Committee asks you to sit down and have a meeting," he said, " ... we'll sit down."
Ortman later said she was concerned how Ramsey County would pay for its $350 million share of the project after Gov. Mark Dayton and other legislative leaders effectively rejected having the county increase local sales taxes for the project. Ortman, who until Tuesday had not been a major stadium player, said she wanted to know from Ramsey County "how are they going to fill that gap?"
Obstacles for Minneapolis
Meanwhile, Minneapolis leaders tried hard to inch back into the stadium discussion Tuesday but remained unwilling to choose among three proposed sites.
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, told Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak that the city may have waited too long.
"There are some who would say that you're a little late to the dance here," Michel said. "What are you waiting for?"
Michel also called on the city to support just one downtown site. "You've got three, you've really got none," he told the mayor.
Rybak said that without input from the Vikings, city officials and business leaders still did not know which of three downtown sites to officially support.
In his testimony, Rybak noted that existing city taxes now used to pay for the city's convention center could be diverted to help pay for the stadium. "We're the only ones bringing any money to the table," the mayor said.
That was a sharp contrast from 2010, when the Vikings appeared before a House committee seeking the city's convention center money for a stadium in Minneapolis and were rebuffed by city officials, who told them the money was unlikely to be available.
But even with their latest pledge, city officials acknowledged Tuesday that City Council support for funding a new Vikings stadium may be lacking and that Minneapolis would need legislative help to maneuver around City Charter provisions that capped how much the city could pay toward a stadium.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the chief Senate author of stadium legislation, said after the hearing that Minneapolis could still end up with the new stadium. "Whether they came late to the table or not, they're still at the table," she said.
Variety of signs and voices
The day's events brought a colorful variety of people to the Capitol: Virginia Weldon of St. Paul sat on a bench and held a sign that read "We Need Housing Not Stadiums." William Jewel, a perennial stadium advocate, brought drawings for a new stadium at the Mall of America and said it could be kept warm by hosting the "world's largest exercise class" and capturing people's body heat.
In a related development, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team with trouble filling its Florida stadium, sent shivers across Minnesota and the National Football League landscape by announcing he was selling his team but promising that a new owner would not move it.
At several points Tuesday, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, a critic of stadium public subsidies, asked the Vikings and Ted Mondale, Dayton's lead stadium negotiator, whether the team needed a stadium because it was losing money. "I didn't hear an answer," a frustrated Marty said as he listened to Mondale.
"I think the answer is that they're making very good money," said Marty.
Addressing reporters in a hallway afterward, Bagley said that "we lose money" playing at the Metrodome.
The Vikings said at the hearing that they would increase their share of costs to $425 million, up from $407 million, but reiterated that the team would not sign a lease to play at the Metrodome beyond 2011 without a new stadium deal.
Bagley led a team of Vikings officials that noticeably did not include team owner Zygi Wilf. Despite Wilf's absence, one woman stood outside the hearing room chanting: "Make Zygi Pay" outside the hearing room.
As he left the hearing, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of Vikings stadium legislation, said the day's events produced little new information except for "maybe a few nuances." He added that he paid careful attention when Rybak and Barb Johnson, Minneapolis' City Council president, answered the question about council support for funding a stadium.
"I think we heard a hesitation," Lanning said.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673