With the state and federal governments looking for ways to jump-start the economy, a New Jersey businessman has an ambitious public works project he says will create more than 5,500 jobs and provide $500 million or more to local contractors.
The businessman is Zygi Wilf, principal owner of the Minnesota Vikings.
The project: A $954 million, state-of-the-art stadium for his football team in downtown Minneapolis -- to be constructed using more than $635 million in public money.
"Why not? The Vikings are a public asset," said Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president in charge of stadium development. "This is going to create an economic boost."
The team has been trying to get public money to build a stadium for more than a decade. And even though Minnesota is facing one of the worst economic crises in its history, the team will once again approach the Legislature this month and ask for the money.
But the idea is not going over well at the Legislature, which will be working with Gov. Tim Pawlenty on erasing a $4.8 billion budget deficit.
In fact, two legislative leaders laughed out loud when asked whether the House and Senate would seriously consider the Vikings' bid this session.
"It certainly will not be a high priority," Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said recently. "We have a fiscal and job crisis in Minnesota."
Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the speaker of the House, was even more blunt about the Vikings' chances of getting state money from the Legislature.
"There is no chance," the Minneapolis DFLer said. "It's a great idea if they would pay for it themselves. But we are in uncharted economic waters. We are in a crisis situation, and we have to focus on the financial and economic health of the state."
Even legislative supporters of the team acknowledge that a stadium will be a hard sell at the upcoming session.
"It's a public works project, there's no doubt about that," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "But it's going to be very difficult. We've got a big budget problem."
Family growing 'frustrated'
Bagley, however, maintains that building a stadium would be good for the state's economy. "The Vikings and professional sports are an important part of the fabric of our community," he said.
Wilf, who would not comment for this article, is proposing to pay about a third, or $318 million, of the cost of the $954 million project, Bagley said. The rest would come from the state and a yet-to-be-determined local government partner, Bagley said. "That's the market rate," said Bagley, referring to the public-private split the Vikings envision.
Pawlenty's office reiterated his opposition to using state money to build a stadium.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung pointed out that no state money was spent on building the Twins' new ballpark and that the public share of the cost was borne by Hennepin County. Thus far, the Vikings have no local government partner, he said.
Bagley said the Wilf family would like to see Pawlenty get more involved. The Wilfs are getting "frustrated" about the lack of progress, and Bagley hints that the family could sell the franchise or the Vikings could leave the Metrodome after the lease expires in 2011.
"It's reality check time," he said. "If we want an NFL franchise in this state, we have to resolve the stadium issue. Time is running out. If nothing gets done, then maybe the Wilfs throw in the towel."
Long, long road
Over the years, the Vikings have tried various tacks to get legislative approval and public funding for the stadium, including subtle and not-so-subtle threats about moving.
This is the first time the team has presented its plan as a public works project, pinning much of its hopes on the trickle-down effect that the federal government's upcoming stimulus package could have in Minnesota and the nation.
How much of a boost it might provide is open to debate, although the team and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission are studying just how much of an economic impact a new stadium might have. Their economic report is supposed to be completed this month, in time to present to the 2009 Legislature.
Bagley said the benefits from building a Vikings stadium would exceed the combined impact of the new Twins baseball stadium and the Gophers football stadium at the University of Minnesota, which between them have employed more than 5,500 workers.
"Once those projects are done, there are going to be thousands of construction workers looking for jobs," Bagley said.
As a result, the team believes this makes the football project a prime candidate for whatever economic stimulus package the state and the federal governments agree to fund.
President-elect Barack Obama is proposing a roughly $800 billion spending bill to build roads and mass transit, upgrade technology and fund other projects over the next two years. But local legislative leaders believe there is no chance that money can be used to build a new stadium for the National Football League team.
"I think there are infrastructure needs that will take precedence," Pogemiller said. "I doubt if the federal stimulus dollars will allow the construction of stadiums."
Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280