Hennepin County took itself out of the running on Thursday as a potential funding partner for a new Vikings stadium, a decision that appears to narrow the list of possible locations to Minneapolis' Metrodome and the former munitions plant site in Arden Hills.
In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton, Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said that proposed state budget cuts, perceived legislative ambivalence for a stadium and lack of time to develop "a thoughtful proposal" had persuaded him to stop pursuing a possible agreement with the Vikings. "In this time of severe cuts proposed to local governments and to the services we provide, it is too burdensome for Hennepin County to act as a local partner for the Vikings stadium," Opat wrote. Hennepin County was the only potential local funding partner backing a new stadium in the Farmers Market area near Target Field, a site that enjoys enthusiastic support from downtown Minneapolis business leaders. Opat's decision appears to take that site off the list of contenders, since Minneapolis city leaders favor the cheaper Dome location.
John Stiles, spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, said the mayor "has always thought that the Farmers Market site was too expensive, and he's continuing to work on the Dome site." Rybak has said Minneapolis doesn't have the resources to finance one-third of a new stadium, as the current bill requires of a local partner. But Stiles said there are "a lot of different ways you could get a local partner done. It wouldn't have to be just one. ... I don't know that the final resolution would include a three-way split."
The bill introduced last month divides the cost of a stadium -- estimated at $700 million to $900 million -- three ways among the state, the team and an unnamed local partner.
Asked on Thursday whether he had a site preference, Dayton answered: "In Minnesota."
The Star Tribune owns five blocks near the Dome that could be involved in a stadium deal. In 2007, the Vikings struck a tentative $45 million deal for that property but withdrew, citing turmoil in credit markets.
Ted Mondale, chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, said he's optimistic that a deal can get done by the Legislature's scheduled adjournment on May 23.
"The situation is extremely fluid," he said. "We may have a local partner, we may not. We may have a new proposal on the table, we may not."
Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of public affairs and stadium development, said the team hopes "within days" to present a stadium package finalizing contributions from the team and a local partner. "There's a lot of effort going regarding the Metrodome site," he said.
The site that team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf were scrutinizing with state leaders on Thursday was Arden Hills. They met with transportation officials, legislators and Ramsey County leaders about the cost of infrastructure that would be needed for that site.
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, a vocal proponent of the Arden Hills site, said his county was in a better position now that Hennepin was out of the picture. But he said the site was still hobbled by false assumptions about its infrastructure needs and what he said was Mondale's favoritism toward the Dome site.
Bennett said studies show the cost of improving Interstates 694 and 35W near Arden Hills would be close to $100 million, not $240 million as reported. That stretch needs work even without the Vikings, he said.
Bennett said that Mondale was "supposed to be neutral, but everything I hear is that he's only pushing the Dome site. It frustrates me because we haven't had any help from him in putting together a deal."
Mondale denied that. "I've spent a lot of time helping his site," he said, adding that he had been at Thursday's meeting with MnDOT officials about Arden Hills.
Opat spearheaded Hennepin County's efforts five years ago to pass a sales tax to help build Target Field for the Twins. He has been openly skeptical about prospects for a similar partnership with the Vikings, but kept the door open.
In his letter to Dayton, Opat said "a small team of very talented staff" met several times with team executives to discuss the Farmers Market area.
Although other commissioners were lukewarm at best about committing county financing for another stadium, Opat said he thought the right deal might have won their support. But Opat, a DFLer, said he didn't think GOP legislators from Hennepin County were interested in a stadium effort.
Many legislators were surprised by Opat's announcement, but some said it didn't necessarily mean the stadium proposal was dead.
"There are still two viable potential partners," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, chief House author of the stadium legislation. "I don't know what might happen next."
Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, whose district includes Arden Hills, said she also was unsure of the next step. "I think taxpayers paying more than half [of the stadium's cost] is problematic," she said.
Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Rachel Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455