Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf made a surprise visit Thursday to the State Capitol, strongly hinting that the final, critical pieces of a plan to build a new taxpayer-supported stadium were nearly in place.
The team's owner, whose sudden appearance turned heads and sent reporters scrambling for cameras, gave no details on what kind of progress was being made on a series of vexing questions, including the Vikings' quest to find a site for the proposed stadium and a local government willing to share in its cost. The chief House author of the stadium legislation, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said he met privately with Wilf but said the owner did not announce any breakthroughs.
Wilf, however, was optimistic as he spoke to reporters following what a Vikings spokesman said were meetings with two dozen legislators. "We're confident that we have the parts in place to get this done this session," said Wilf, who at one point huddled with individual legislators in a marbled hallway. "We're right now in the process of working with several potential [local] partners.
"They're very much willing and able to get this deal done," he added.
Wilf's visit was not his first to the State Capitol this legislative session, but it was certainly his most public. It came with just 38 days left before legislators are scheduled to adjourn in what many supporters see as a make-or-break year for the stadium, and as legislators face a daunting $5.1 billion state budget deficit that may force widespread social service cuts. The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome, the team's downtown Minneapolis home for 29 years, expires after this year and the Vikings have said that they will not renew it.
Wilf, meanwhile, dismissed reports that the team might be sold, or that he may be in talks to sell it. "There are no talks like that," he said.
His appearance came less than a week after Republican legislators, following a series of delays, introduced a proposal to help fund a new Vikings stadium that would have the team pay a third of the cost. Under the plan, the state would contribute as much as $300 million, largely from a series of user taxes and revenue from the stadium's naming rights. State and local tax money, according to the proposal, would cover two-thirds of the cost for a stadium, whose most recent pricetag was estimated at nearly $900 million.
Wilf also did not directly answer how much the team would pay for the stadium, saying only that the Vikings were committed to a "substantial private investment." Afterward, Lester Bagley, the team's vice president for public affairs and stadium development, declined comment on whether Wilf was offering to pay more than a third of the stadium's pricetag.
Both Lanning and Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, a Senate co-author of the stadium proposal, said having a local government partner would help the plan gain votes at the Capitol. "We need to find a local partner, there's no doubt about that," said Magnus.
'Legislature is not saying no'
Following Wilf's visit, Ted Mondale, chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the owner of the Metrodome, said Hennepin and Ramsey counties were discussing whether to join the Vikings as a local partner and that Minneapolis officials were thinking about it. Though Mondale said the "Legislature is not saying no" to the proposal, he said the team understood that having a local partner would make the plan "less complicated."
"In the end, it's hard to pass something this complicated without more certainty," said Mondale, who is serving as Gov. Mark Dayton's point person on the stadium.
Wilf's comments, however, gave pause to Tony Bennett, the Ramsey County commissioner leading what so far has been the only public push by a local government to partner with the Vikings. "I'm concerned about the comments that he's talking to others, because we're led to believe that nobody's anyplace close to what we've done," he said.
As Wilf stood surrounded by aides and lobbyists Thursday, a series of legislators walked up to talk to him. Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said he talked to Wilf about the effect that the National Football League's collective bargaining impasse with the player's union is having on the stadium. Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, said she wanted details about the possibility the team might build in Ramsey County. "I'd like to see them come to the table with more [money]," she said of the Vikings.
Wilf's visit also came one day after Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, one of the new freshmen in the Republican Senate majority, issued a statement reiterating his opposition to public subsidies for a stadium. "I don't think he loves me," Thompson said as he waited for Wilf to speak to reporters.
Asked if he could be persuaded to support a stadium plan, Thompson replied:
"Not if tax dollars are involved."