As the Vikings stadium debate wore into the evening at the State Capitol a week ago, Target Corp.'s John Griffith finally took his case public.

It was a coming out of sorts for the retailer's executive vice president for property development. He testified in support of the bill at a House committee after largely playing a behind-the-scenes role in the stadium debate.

"The vitality of our largest city's urban core is an issue of importance that extends beyond the seven-county metro area," said Griffith, 50. "Simply put, when Minneapolis succeeds, the entire state reaps the benefits."

The city is at the heart of his job. Griffith has proven to be a mix of cheerleader, taskmaster and agile strategist with a Fortune 500 flair.

A month's worth of e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune through the state's Data Practices Act hint at a close relationship between Griffith and his team at Target and other top players in the high-stakes stadium game, including Mayor R.T. Rybak, the governor's stadium negotiator and a Vikings official. Others copied on e-mails include U.S. Bancorp Chairman and CEO Richard Davis, Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, and Target's Chairman and CEO Gregg Steinhafel.

Only three years ago, the city interacted with lower-level staffers at Target specializing in government affairs or community outreach, said Jeremy Hanson Willis, the mayor's chief of staff. Rybak said that changed when Steinhafel initiated a closer relationship with the city that eventually drew Griffith into the fold.

Rybak said Griffith is among many people who have provided feedback about the stadium. He has not only stumped for a new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis, but for public funds to rehab Nicollet Mall, the city's retail spine. He's also been involved with rehabbing Peavey Plaza.

Griffith's urban advocacy was crystallized by his leadership on the Downtown Council's 2025 project, which resulted in an ambitious blueprint for the city's central core that not only calls for a new football stadium, but residential housing, parks, enhanced transportation options and eradicating street homelessness.

"John is the vice president of real estate for the company that has far and away the largest real estate holdings in the city," Rybak said. "Their opinion matters. I have agreed with John on some issues. And I've disagreed on others."

Griffith declined to be interviewed. In an e-mail, he said he's "proud to take part in helping to shape the future of downtown Minneapolis in a voluntary role as chair of the Downtown Council's 2025 Plan steering committee. The credit really goes to the many business, social service and community leaders who led our efforts. ... in the spirit of making Minneapolis a world-class city."

Some critics contend that Target wants first dibs on the naming rights for a Vikings stadium. (Target spokeswoman Amy Reilly said, "It's too early to discuss naming rights.")

Local business leaders have long been inextricably linked with the construction of sports stadiums. "If purists think that just an elected official or a governmental enterprise can get a stadium built, they're making a big mistake," said Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Downtown Council, a group of Minneapolis business leaders. "Those of us in the business community are thrilled that larger companies are now taking full interest in local civic affairs."

While speaking to the legislative committee last week, Griffith told lawmakers that a stadium would be a "major selling point" as the state attracts new employers and as Target retains and woos new talent.

"We want to add another 400 jobs next year and the year after and the year after and the year after," he said. "And when those jobs come, they buy houses, they pay property taxes, they pay income taxes."

Dealmaker at work

Griffith's e-mails to the city preceding a March 1 agreement on the terms of the stadium deal portray a consummate dealmaker enmeshed in the details of a major development project. The most blunt message came on Feb. 21, when Griffith pushed city negotiators to sign an agreement with the Vikings "in the next 24 hours." He told them to ditch a provision about updating Target Center and eliminate a deadline for the city to approve the deal.

While Griffith and the Downtown Council initially advocated a stadium on the west side of downtown, they eventually warmed to the Metrodome site. Noting that he spent "most of Friday in [an architecture and engineering firm's] office" outlining a plaza next to the stadium, he forwarded designs of what the project could look like.

"Soccer, hockey, lacrosse tournaments inside and outside the stadium could really help with the sales pitch on making this 'The People's Stadium' as the governor would like," Griffith wrote to the mayor, Gov. Mark Dayton's chief of staff, a Vikings vice president and others. "The residential activity that such a park could ignite is very important as it could drive substantial tax revenue for the city."

He also sounded words of political caution about how certain fees and revenue sources were labeled. Regarding game day "fees," he asked, "Are these ticket taxes, and do you believe that the Legislature will accept this?"

Rybak brushed off suggestions that Griffith's forceful messages indicate he is dictating City Hall policy. "I would say John Griffith is blunt, but so am I," Rybak said, reiterating that they don't always agree.

Downtown projects

A native of Colorado, Griffith attended Bethel College in Arden Hills, majoring in business. He played on the football team and still counts outdoor pursuits -- fly fishing, golf, bicycling, water and snow skiing -- as hobbies.

He later earned an MBA from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. He and his wife, Lisa, have been married for 26 years -- the Griffiths live in Maple Grove and have three children.

Griffith's commercial real estate career includes stints at Trammel Crow Co. and Opus Corp. before landing at Ryan Companies, the Minneapolis-based developer that has long-standing ties with Target.

At Ryan, Griffith was involved in the development of a Target store at 9th Street and Nicollet Mall. The store provoked controversy because it received about $71 million in public subsidies.

Rebecca Driscoll, who headed the city's development agency in the 1990s, said Griffith was her point of contact for development of what is now the U.S. Bancorp Center, the downtown Target store, and Target headquarters -- all on Nicollet Mall. At the time, several major downtown employers were looking at suburban campuses, she said.

"He is the most tenacious, brilliant real estate person I've ever dealt with, and I've known a lot," said Driscoll, who now works for Keystone Search, an executive search firm. Griffith donated $1,000 to Driscoll's U.S. Senate campaign in 2000.

Griffith joined Dayton Hudson Corp. (now Target) in 1999. At the time, the discount-store chain was still regional in scope, but was fast-growing under the high-octane corporate culture of then-Chairman and CEO Bob Ulrich. Today, Target is a national retailer with 1,765 stores and plans to enter the Canadian market next year. While Griffith largely operated beneath the radar, he's not apolitical -- according to campaign finance records, he's donated money to Norm Coleman, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Amy Klobuchar and John McCain, among others.

In early 2010, the Downtown Council named Griffith to head the 2025 project, and a final report was released last year. The effort involved herding the often-divergent interests of business, government and community organizations to agree on a cohesive plan that will guide future development downtown.

Elliot Jaffee, U.S. Bank Twin Cities market president and chair of the Downtown Council, said Griffith was "passionate about the whole project, he's a big believer in downtown Minneapolis. We wanted a vision that reached high, that was aspirational, and they reached it."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 Eric Roper • 612-673-1732