Legislators plan Gophers stadium future options

by Maggie Hessel-Mial

Stadiums have been the talk of the town since a possible Major League Baseball contraction first clouded the minds of many Minnesota sports fans late last year.

State legislators are hammering out their final proposal to fund a new home for the Minnesota Twins baseball team within the next two weeks.

An initiative to build a shared football facility for the Gophers and Vikings is barely breathing, with legislators hesitating to fund two stadiums during a year with a $2.3 billion state deficit.

But some legislators say that with a significant National Football League stadium grant deadline quickly approaching, the window of opportunity is closing.

“There is no good time to solve this problem,” said Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins. “The things we’re talking about doing for funding don’t add or detract from the budget problems we have in front of us.”

The NFL has a matching program for teams wishing to build stadiums. Vikings owners have agreed to contribute $100 million for the facility, adding to the NFL’s $51.5 million grant.

The program is slated to end in March, and many legislators say this is a deciding factor in the process of financing a second stadium for the Gophers and Vikings.

“We would be stupid to not capitalize on that revenue stream,” said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville. “There is more money on the table for a Gophers/Vikings stadium than the Twins have.”

The Senate and House have passed their respective Twins stadium bills, and a conference committee will meet sometime this week or next to smooth out the differences.

In the Senate’s version, taxes would be mandated on memorabilia, parking and food sold at the facility. The revenue generated from the additional “user fees” would go into a Sports Facilities Account, which could be used to fund a Gophers/Vikings football facility, Kelley said.

The House’s offer includes a local food, beverage and lodging tax on area residents where the stadium would be built.

“A lot of people think there is some role the state should play in this,” Kelley said. “Most people don’t think we should be using general fund money to fund this.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she would prefer to renovate the Metrodome into an updated football stadium to avoid the extra costs of building a new one.

“I would like to see the head of the person on a platter who said we should take down the original stadium,” Kahn said. “To tear down and want to build over 20 years later is an outrageous waste of resources.”

The original Memorial Football Stadium – which once occupied the current site of the Gateway alumni center – was torn down in 1982 when the team moved into the Metrodome.

Kahn said she didn’t think much would be accomplished this session on a University stadium and said the University’s funding requests for other building projects are much higher priorities than an on-campus stadium.

Sen. Roy Terwilliger, R-Edina, said he thinks making plans for a Gophers/Vikings stadium now is a good venture.

“I don’t think we should rule it out completely,” Terwilliger said. “Important groundwork was laid on it this year.”

He also said with the economy suffering and low bonding rates available, new stadiums could help create additional jobs and tax revenue.

One impediment to funding a Gophers/Vikings stadium this session is the House’s request for a referendum to approve its plan’s additional taxes.

If the Senate’s Sports Facilities Account and the House’s plan of additional food, beverage and lodging taxes both remain in the conference committee’s final bill, a referendum could be necessary to implement these taxes.

Holberg said she thinks a referendum would kill the stadium plan because few taxpayers would give the go-ahead to pay the additional fees.

“I think the referendum is necessary, but I think it’s iffy at best that the taxpayers will want to pay,” she said.

Terwilliger said he believes representative democracy gives legislators the power to make decisions on taxes.

“These are the types of decisions that we have a representative form of government for,” he said. “I don’t think we should do everything by referendum.”

While the fate of the Gophers/Vikings stadium is unclear, legislators are pushing their political might to keep the idea of the project alive through the final weeks of the session.

“I favor solving this problem,” Kelley said. “With the (Twins) bill out of the House and Senate, we’ve got a way in conference committee – with the participation of the governor – to come up with a workable plan that meets the criteria of all sides.”

Maggie Hessel-Mial covers the state Legislature and welcomes comments at [email protected]