A key stadium official Wednesday tentatively cleared the way for work to proceed on the Minnesota Vikings’ new home, dismissing fears that a New Jersey lawsuit could imperil the team’s ability to foot its share of the $975 million construction bill.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, said that even in a “worst-case” scenario involving a judge awarding tens of millions of dollars in punitive damages, Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf appear to have the “financial capability” to pay for their share of the stadium building cost.
She also said that the public board overseeing the development doesn’t need to wait for a judge’s ruling later this month to move forward with the project.
“It looks like even with the court case that they will have the wherewithal to meet all their obligations on the stadium,” Kelm-Helgen said after a nearly two-hour, closed-door authority meeting with attorneys, who updated board members on their extensive legal and financial background check of the Wilfs.
Vikings go back to the table
The Vikings issued a statement later in the day saying they were “pleased” the project was moving forward. They did not address the Wilfs’ finances but indicated team officials will return to the negotiating table to hammer out important lease and development agreements with the authority, deals that must be finalized before team financing can be arranged and construction begins.
The team walked away from those negotiations shortly after the authority launched the deeper background review and said it wouldn’t return until the probe was complete. Within days, Kelm-Helgen publicly expressed concerns that the impasse could delay construction by as much as a month.
The stadium, to be built on the Metrodome site, is tentatively scheduled to open in July 2016.
Kelm-Helgen said that she was more “confident” as of Wednesday that construction will stay on schedule “as long as the use and development agreements get done by mid-September.”
She said Mark Wilf called her Wednesday to say that team officials “were willing to come back to the table” to resume talks on both.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” she said. “But we have the agreements in pretty good shape from our perspective, so hopefully that all goes well.”
Stadium groundbreaking, which will take place east of the Dome, is tentatively set for early November.
NFL is pleased
The authority asked for the more extensive legal and financial “due-diligence” check of the Wilfs after a New Jersey judge ruled last month that they had defrauded partners in a real estate deal in that state.
The judge, who was highly critical of the family’s business practices, is expected to award damages in the case later this month. Those damages could cost the Wilfs tens of millions of dollars or more, which initially raised concerns about their ability to finance the new stadium.
The Vikings are responsible for $477 million of the construction cost, with the state of Minnesota and city of Minneapolis picking up the rest. The team’s portion will come from a $200 million NFL loan and revenue generated by the sale of personal seat licenses to season-ticket holders, stadium naming rights, other sponsorships and team equity.
That revenue could be substantial, prompting critics of the stadium deal to question just how much financial exposure the Wilfs and the team have.
While keeping the Wilf family finances private, the owners and the team have said repeatedly in recent weeks that the outcome of the New Jersey lawsuit would have no bearing on the stadium or their ability to finance construction. The NFL also has told Kelm-Helgen that it stands behind the project.
“We continue to have full confidence in the Vikings and the stadium project, and are gratified that the Authority appears to be coming to the same conclusion,” NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman said Wednesday.
Authority members were briefed on the due-diligence work at a special meeting Wednesday morning by attorneys representing the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, which is leading the probe, and by representatives of FTI Consulting, an international forensic accounting firm.
Kelm-Helgen said afterward that the due-diligence team “still had a number of items” to review but added she was confident that it could complete its work by next week.
A summary of the findings should be made public at that time, she said, well ahead of the judge’s announcement on damages in the New Jersey case, which is expected Sept. 23.