Michele Kelm-Helgen sat near the plate glass window of the U.S. Bank Plaza, her small frame hunched over a cup of coffee. The prow of the gleaming new stadium that has absorbed her life and put her under intense public scrutiny loomed in the distance.
Two days after being grilled by legislators over the use of suites at the Vikings new home, Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, was contrite and, at times, emotional. She was trying to defend herself without sounding defensive, trying to persuade a reporter that she gets it, when that very phrase makes anyone who uses it sound exactly like they don’t.
To her credit, Kelm-Helgen didn’t employ the popular “mistakes were made.” She wishes she could go back in time and have a do-over. She wishes she would have recognized and dealt with the bitter skepticism surrounding the U.S. Bank Stadium, and conducted a thorough vetting of the MSFA’s suite policies, which were similar to the policies that were in place in the Metrodome for decades, she said.
“I should have known everything about this stadium generates controversy,” said Kelm-Helgen. “If I could go back and start over again and have a public board meeting and have a lengthy discussion about what the policy has been and what the new policy would be, I would. I had so many balls in the air trying to get the stadium on track, should I have been concerned? Yes, I regret that.”
“Have you ever considered resigning?” I asked Kelm-Helgen. She stared out the window toward the stadium for a few moments, but didn’t answer, not with words, anyway.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
I asked Kelm-Helgen why she was the one taking the heat and not anyone else, such as CEO Ted Mondale.
“I have some ideas about that,” she said. But then, as she would several times during the interview, she shook her head and said nothing.
Kelm-Helgen likely will have to go before the Legislature again to answer more questions about suites and how the marketing efforts of the MSFA mix with that of the group it hired to market the stadium, SMG. There will be questions about protesters who were able to scale the beams and drop a banner at the final game.
She said she understands why people are angry that authority members brought relatives to games and events, but says officials at other venues in town do the same, including at the Metrodome, which was also owned and controlled by the state. She thinks the state should make a standard policy followed by all venues.
Chuck Turchick, an activist and opponent of publicly funded stadiums, watched Kelm-Helgen answer questions this week. “Mainly, I was amazed at how many times she kept coming back to ‘the other guys do it too’ mantra,” Turchick said in an e-mail.
She did again Friday, confounded by why similar behavior was tolerated before. “For 32 years at the Metrodome they had three suites, under both Democratic and Republican governors,” she said. “They had audits every year. They were not a secret. I’m trying not to sound defensive.”
But Duane Benson, who quit the authority over disagreements on governance and what he said was poor treatment by Kelm-Helgen, sees problems with the MSFA as “something that could have been avoided. The model we used embodies all the bad things that can happen in government.”
“Questions of excess come to bear, here,” said Benson. “There’s this unbridled notion that they can do anything.”
The line of decisionmaking was never clear, he said, with Kelm-Helgen and Mondale doing similar or conflicting work. “It was a power struggle.”
Kelm-Helgen takes issue with the notion that suites were for DFL cronies. She said many of the business people who attended games likely were Republicans. She also said Republican legislators Julie Rosen and Morrie Lanning participated in the opening ceremonies and would have been invited to the suite, but “I had assumed they had been taken care of for the game” by the Vikings.
As for duties that differ from SMG marketers, Kelm-Helgen said that “there definitely needs to be a role for public oversight and involvement.” She said she has spent much of her time making sure that the public events that don’t produce profits, such as high school games, get handled.
I’m guessing there is a fair amount of herding of the Vikings so that they don’t run roughshod, trying to brand and capitalize on everything that moves.
It’s interesting that back when Kelm-Helgen was hired, that’s a role even some Republicans saw for her.
“I do suspect that in a testosterone world like the NFL that is littered with billionaire owners, that there may be the temptation to underestimate her,” David Jennings, a former Republican speaker of the House, said at the time. “They’ll rue the day. In the final outcome, she’s not intimidated by any of those things.”
On Friday, Kelm-Helgen seemed perhaps not intimidated but a little worn down. When I told her that activist Turchick had quipped, “So I guess we can say that the first year of the stadium was a banner year,” at least she laughed.