The Dayton administration and legislative leaders are quietly and at times forcefully telling the Minnesota Vikings that the $1.1 billion Arden Hills stadium plan is unlikely to work, sources close to the negotiations say. That advice has prompted team officials to re-examine previously spurned sites in Minneapolis.
The subtle signs of shifting momentum on potential stadium sites are increasingly apparent.
Vikings officials have conducted traffic studies of the Linden Avenue site, near the Basilica of St. Mary, and discussed the site in a recent meeting with new Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem. Last week, team officials also got a private tour of the site from Rev. John Bauer, the basilica's rector. Bauer said that he met with Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of stadium development and public affairs, and that the team is conducting preliminary analysis of the Linden Avenue site.
"They asked to meet here, so that we could kind of show them around," Bauer said. "They were trying to look at the pros and cons of each of the sites."
Bagley said Saturday that legislators have asked the team to explore the other sites, but he maintained that the Arden Hills site is "ideal."
Gov. Mark Dayton has made it plain that he expects to arrive at a single site and method of funding for the stadium by the time the Legislature convenes Jan. 24. He has given Minneapolis and Ramsey County until 5 p.m. Thursday to make their best offers -- a move stadium watchers say will highlight Ramsey's lack of financing options.
"A partner without money isn't a partner, it's a friend," said one source close to the talks. "The Vikings are coming to realize that Arden Hills might not work."
But Bagley said the county's plan to raise the restaurant food and beverage tax by 3 percent is viable. He noted that he has not seen a complete financing package from Minneapolis.
In studying Minneapolis sites, Bagley said, the team has found "significant challenges" with the Farmers Market site, particularly elevation differences with Target Field. He said the team's experts have tested the Linden Avenue site and found "no show-stoppers or major challenges."
Problems from the beginning
The Arden Hills site has been dogged by problems since May, when Vikings owners held a news conference surrounded by cheering fans to announce plans for a $1.1 billion stadium with a retractable roof.
Soon, funding issues emerged. The site, an old Army munitions plant, is expected to need significant and expensive cleanup. An attempt to raise the countywide sales tax a half cent was shot down. The plan to raise restaurant and bar taxes 3 percent also faces difficulties. On Friday, Ramsey County opponents launched a petition drive to block the county from raising money to finance the stadium.
The case for Arden Hills appears even tougher at the Capitol, where the Republican-controlled Legislature has firmly opposed tax increases and shown no willingness to let local governments skirt public votes on sales taxes.
A Republican source close to stadium negotiations said legislative leaders have told the Vikings several times point-blank that "there is no viable path for Arden Hills."
Tom Horner, a politically active public affairs consultant who previously worked with the Vikings, said he is not surprised to see the Arden Hills proposal falling apart.
Horner said that Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett "deserves a lot of credit for pushing the Arden Hills site as far as he did, but in the end, a lot of financial cards were stacked against that location."
Sources close to the stadium negotiations say there is no grand plan to force the Vikings to build in Minneapolis, just ongoing attempts to constrict the debate to what is considered viable.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of stadium legislation, said plans are under way to retool the Arden Hills proposal before Dayton's deadline to make it more appealing.
The changes could require a bid process to choose a developer for the 170 acres of land surrounding the stadium. The current plan would allow team owner Zygi Wilf to develop the property. But that change would not address a chief complaint -- the lack of a local funding source.
Nick Riley, Ramsey County's chief lobbyist, said it is unnerving to see the Vikings' obvious interest in Minneapolis sites.
Riley said he doesn't believe the Vikings are abandoning Arden Hills, but said, "Frankly, if it is Minneapolis, so be it."
Jockeying for favor
In Minneapolis, community leaders are showing fresh zeal for keeping the team and jostling privately to win favor for one of three downtown sites.
Supporters say those sites offer three key advantages: The potential to tap existing tax dollars for a local contribution, easy access for the wealthy west metro fans who will buy lucrative seating packages, and close proximity to companies most likely to buy stadium naming rights.
But while government officials are cool to Arden Hills, the Vikings are still rebuffing Minneapolis' top offer: Rebuilding on the Metrodome site.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has said that site is the most affordable, can handle the traffic, and is free of unknown environmental concerns.
"We need to do that in a way that makes sense for us and doesn't mortgage the future of the taxpayers of the city," Rybak said. "If that works for the Vikings, we're thrilled."
But such a move would force the team to play elsewhere during the long construction period and, Bagley said, cause it to lose money.
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.
Rybak said the city is prepared to work with the team if the Vikings conclude the Metrodome is unacceptable.
The Farmers Market site would connect the stadium to Target Field parking lots and light rail, but it would be wedged into a comparatively tiny parcel of the land and lack the expansion possibilities of Arden Hills.
Chuck Leer, a developer promoting the Farmers Market site, said team owners are "awakening to the possibilities" of an urban sports corridor, an idea long favored by downtown business leaders that would put the stadium close to thriving hotels, restaurants and an entertainment district.
But the Vikings have appeared more intrigued by the Linden Avenue site, tucked into a little-traveled corner on the western edge of downtown, in a scrubby industrial area dotted with low-slung Xcel Energy storage and maintenance buildings and surrounded on three sides by freeways.
That site poses its own challenges. In a letter that will soon be sent to the basilica's 6,300-member parish, Bauer wrote that he has "serious concerns" about having a football stadium for a neighbor.
"The basilica is currently a beacon on the skyline, and the notion of a major stadium so close to this historic building is not comforting," he wrote. The letter notes that major construction would "do harm to our buildings" and parking for Sunday games would prove "daunting."
The biggest question for a Minneapolis site may be whether Rybak has the political muscle to persuade a skeptical City Council to support the use of tax dollars for a new Vikings home.
Rybak "still governs a city with lots of other challenges," Horner said. "Even in a year with minimal city property tax increases, a lot of Minneapolitans aren't going to happily accept public subsidies for a stadium."