Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said Wednesday he was "optimistic" that the team could agree on a new stadium at the Metrodome site, although the Vikings at least publicly held out hope that the project could still be built in Ramsey County.
That was a change in tone from earlier in the week, when Vikings officials described themselves as "frustrated" over being told by state officials that only the Metrodome was considered a viable site.
With Gov. Mark Dayton trying to shepherd the Vikings and Minneapolis toward a new $918 million stadium at the Metrodome, city officials and key legislators met with Wilf and Dayton for three hours Wednesday. Afterward they announced they had made progress but came to no agreement.
Dayton and others said that as the Legislature starts its short session, time may quickly run out to get a stadium deal through this year.
"We're a lot further than we were a few hours ago," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said after the meeting ended.
But Rep. Morrie Lanning, the chief stadium sponsor in the House, criticized Rybak's insistence that any city public subsidy package include financial relief for the city's Target Center.
"We run the risk of losing some legislative votes -- some people who would vote perhaps for the stadium, but because Target Center is a part of it, may not be willing to vote," Lanning said.
Rybak countered that "Target Center needs to be part of it. We need to be able to go back to the people I represent and say that we were able to help on serious property tax" relief, including financially restructuring Target Center.
Ramsey County on the clock
From the Capitol, Vikings team officials next met with Ramsey County officials to chew over a new deadline on a local funding package for the team's preferred site in Arden Hills.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the chief Senate stadium legislation author, said the county had until the end of the week to submit a new financing plan to replace a local food and beverage tax, which Rosen said lacked legislative support.
Although Wilf and others said Arden Hills was still being considered, the governor's meeting did not include anyone from Ramsey County and showed that the stadium's focus had swung to the team's longtime Metrodome home in downtown Minneapolis.
The Vikings' reluctance to publicly move away from Ramsey County as a site may also have to do with stadium politics: Five years ago, the team was harshly criticized by Anoka County officials after negotiating a tentative agreement for a stadium in Blaine and then backing away to explore building in Minneapolis.
Lanning suggested that keeping Arden Hills alive as an option gives stadium negotiators leverage with Minneapolis. "If we walked away from Arden Hills right now it's going to be a whole lot more difficult to come to an agreement with Minneapolis," the Moorhead Republican said.
Wilf and his brother Mark, the team's president, met for nearly 90 minutes with Ramsey County officials. County Finance Director Lee Mehrkens was upbeat after the meeting.
"We appreciate the Vikings' ideas, and I think we have more to talk to the working group about," he said. Asked on his way into the meeting whether the county would come up with another funding option by Friday, Mehrkens smiled and said, "we'll see."
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett said the county has ideas for a third funding proposal. He also noted his frustration with the lack of detail in the Minneapolis plan. "We'll have something by Friday," he said. "I'd like to see the others, wouldn't you?"
Mark Wilf spoke briefly to reporters afterward, emphasizing that the team was still open to other sites because no site has been selected.
Minneapolis' stadium plan, which Dayton termed "meager" only a week ago, would redirect existing city sales taxes being used to financially help the city's convention center. The money would provide $313 million to a new Vikings stadium's operations and construction in 2016 dollars.
The four-page plan that Minneapolis submitted to the governor did not, however, provide financial details on how Rybak hoped to pay down Target Center's debt to relieve city property taxes while leaving enough money to maintain the city's convention center.
The week's flurry of stadium activity began late Monday when Dayton abruptly announced that only a new Vikings stadium at the site of the Metrodome, where the team has played for 30 years, could go forward at the Legislature this year.
What happens next in the stadium debate is unclear. Legislative leaders have not said whether they will start another round of hearings and have offered no definitive plan for moving the stadium through to a floor vote.
Dayton said he will meet again with team officials next week, but said, "I'm not setting any more deadlines."