Vikings strike Arden Hills stadium deal with Ramsey Co.

The Minnesota Vikings Tuesday took the first big step in a journey that could move the NFL franchise out of Minneapolis after 30 years, and into a Ramsey County suburb 10 miles northeast of the Metrodome.
110511124946_Vikings Arden Hills Aerial web 640.jpgThe team's co-owners, Zygi and Mark Wilf, announced they had made a handshake deal with Ramsey County Commissioners Tony Bennett and Rafael Ortega for a new $1 billion sports complex in Arden Hills.

"It was too compelling to pass up," Zygi Wilf told dozens of reporters who gathered at a Ramsey County Sheriff's Department substation near the proposed stadium site.

"In fact, the more we explored it, the more we felt excited that this was the best place to have a stadium."

The centerpiece of the new sports, entertainment, residential and retail development would be an $884 million retractable roof stadium.   The 260-acre project is targeted for the site of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunitions Plan, which is still owned by the Army.

The plan also features 21,000 parking spaces that could conceivably generate revenue for the team while creating a game day destination for NFL fans.

"We wanted to bringing back the tradition of tailgating, a full-day experience that our fans want," Wilf explained.

The Wilfs said the Arden Hills site would combine the outdoor atmosphere of the old Metropolitan Stadium parking lot in Bloomington with the all-weather flexibility of the Metrodome.

Former Coach Bud Grant, a legendary figure from the team's glory days, pointed out that the ammunition plant sat idle for decades.

"This is an historic place," he told the media who gathered for the announcement, "It's almost as though fate saved it for the Vikings. Let's take advantage of it.  Bring on the Packers!"

The agreement, worked out during months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, calls for the team to invest $407 million.  That's 39 percent of the total development, or 44 percent of the stadium.

Ramsey county's share would be $350 million, or 33 percent, and the total project, which would be financed through a half-cent county sales tax. The football stadium bill pending in the legislature authorizes the team's local partner to impose a local option sales tax without a pubic referendum.

"This project will turn an environmental liability into an asset, clean up the largest Superfund site in the state, return property to the tax rolls, put people to work and provide for much-needed transportation infrastructure upgrades," Commissioner Bennett said, in a prepared statement.

The State of Minnesota would be expected to pick up
$300 million of the project, or a 28 percent share.  The stadium bill authorizes the state to raise that revenue through a sports memorabilia tax and special taxes paid by players and those who attend the games.

Bennett said the stadium would seat 65,000 for typical football games, but would be expandable to 72,000 for special events, such as the NCAA Final Four or the Super Bowl.

One day earlier Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak made a formal bid to keep the Vikings in the Mill City, announcing plans for a new $895 million football stadium at the site of the current Metrodome. The plan would also finance a $100 million facelift of the Target Center.

Rybak pointed out that the Metrodome site would be much less expensive to develop, because of the existing infrastructure -- utilities, roads and transit lines. The Arden Hills land is part of an EPA Superfund Cleanup site because of pollutants in the soil and groundwater.

That price differential was borne out in a study released Tuesday by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which oversees the operation of the Metrodome.

The study estimated site preparation, infrastructure and road improvements at the Arden Hills site would cost between $274 million and $340 million, compared to only $30 million for a new stadium on the Metrodome site.

The Vikings, however, weren't enamored with the prospect of playing three seasons in the TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus while the Dome is being razed and replaced.  The team estimated a $40 million revenue hit per season if they moved to the NCAA venue.

If the team builds in Arden Hills, on the other hand, they can continue to play in the Metrodome three more seasons. That's assuming, of course, the league can settle its labor dispute with players.

The entire proposal hinges on approval from state lawmakers. With only 12 days remaining in the 2011 regular legislative session, the stadium proposal hasn't received a committee hearing yet in the Minnesota House or Senate.

Governor Dayton said last week the plan could still gain approval from lawmakers before the clock ticks down to zero, but it would be crucial for the team to settle on one location rather than leaving the site open ended.

The Governor has said he is neutral on stadium location, "as long as it's built in Minnesota."

Toward that end Dayton has maintained that the state's $300 million stake would be the same regardless of where the stadium is built.  On Tuesday he said any state highway improvements needed for the Arden Hills site would be deducted from the state's $300 million, rather than in addition to it.

State Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel, who joined Dayton at a Capitol news conference, said the critical intersection of I-35W and I-694 is not due for a substantial rebuild for several years yet.  That's based on a Dept. of Transportation ranking of priorities statewide and inside the Twin Cities Metro Division.

Sorel estimated the cost of improvements to that junction, and associated interchanges at $175 million if only a stadium is built. If the area is fully developed as envisioned by the Wilf brothers, that cost would go to $240 million according to the MnDOT estimate.

Click here for a look at what the Arden Hills site would look like from above, if fully developed.

Bennett said he was sure he had enough votes on the county board to approve the deal he and Ortega made with the Vikings organization.  He'll have a much harder time convincing members of the Ramsey County legislative delegation that now is the time to proceed on a stadium bill.

"Ramsey County is facing massive and damaging cuts in human services," Rep. Alice Hausman, D - St. Paul, said Tuesday afternoon.

"To choose to raise taxes for a Vikings stadium represents not only misplaced priorities, but a lack of sensitivity to human needs."

Sen. John Marty of Roseville, long an opponent of public subsidies for professional stadiums, was even more pointed in his reaction.

"The Ramsey County Board has been at the Capitol this year, pleading that they cannot manage more cuts without painful consequences for people with disabilities, the poor, and the vulnerable," Marty remarked.

"Now, they are promising to raise taxes on Ramsey County residents, not to address these needs, but to subsidize a billionaire businessman."

Rep. Carol McFarlane, a White Bear Lake Republican, said her constituents want the state's looming $5 billion deficit settled before a stadium vote.  And, she added, they want a chance to vote on the half-cent county sales tax increase for the stadium.

Rep. Kate Knuth, D - New Brighton, sent a letter to the Wilfs and county commissioners Tuesday, stating both the benefits and downsides of the project, which would be located inside her district.

Knuth said the project offers a unique opportunity to clean up an environmentally blighted area, and bring economic development.  At the same time, however, she argued the Vikings should pick up at least half of the cost.
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