Minneapolis leaders back Metrodome site for stadium

ST. PAUL — Minneapolis city leaders on Tuesday put their weight behind a proposal to rebuild a new Vikings stadium at the current site of the Metrodome, saying it would be $215 million cheaper than the team’s preferred plan to build a $1.1 billion stadium in the suburbs.

The pitch by Mayor R.T. Rybak came at a hearing of two state Senate panels focused on funding possibilities for a state share of building the stadium. The hearing also touched on proposals to expand gambling as a state funding source, including a new proposal from northwestern Minnesota’s White Earth Tribal Nation to build a Twin Cities-area casino and put some of its proceeds into the stadium pot.

It’s the second such hearing in a week on the subject of a Vikings stadium, as the team pushes for state help in replacing the Metrodome. Vikings chief financial officer Steve Poppen said in a presentation that the team is $42 million below the NFL average in local revenues, a lag he attributed to Metrodome deficiencies.

State Sen. Julianne Ortman, who chaired the hearing, stressed the point of the gathering was not to get behind specific funding or location proposals but rather for lawmakers to gather information.

Even though the team’s lease at the Metrodome expires at the end of the current season, Ortman said she was not yet convinced that replacing the Metrodome is as urgent as the Vikings and some of their allies have portrayed.

“We’re being told this is very urgent, and frankly I’m not yet convinced,” said Ortman, a Republican from Chanhassen.

Rybak, in response to a request last week by senators that the city narrow three possible downtown sites to one, said Tuesday the current Metrodome site would be most cost-efficient, could use existing infrastructure, and that the city could bring local contribution to the table in the form of $300 million from an existing city sales tax.

“We believe the Vikings could get into the site more quickly than anywhere else, giving them faster access to the higher revenues they seek,” Rybak said.

The Minneapolis offer of $300 million could give it a leg up over the Ramsey County proposal, on the site of a former Army ammunition plant in suburban Arden Hills. Ramsey County board members hoped to raise a half-cent sales tax to pay a local share, but dropped that approach because it would have required a vote of approval by the public.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Ramsey County’s chief financial officer, Lee Mehrkens, said county leaders would seek to meet with Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers on the possibility of raising county sales taxes on specific items including food and beverages, or motels and hotels, for a local contribution. But that would simply resurrect the debate over a public referendum on any new tax increase, and lead stadium bill sponsor Sen. Julie Rosen declared it an unworkable approach.

Rosen said the Minneapolis proposal “is starting to look pretty viable.” She said lawmakers working on the issue would unveil a bill soon that would have a specific location and funding proposal.

The Vikings have not retreated from support for the Ramsey County site, and team vice president Lester Bagley on Tuesday again told committee members that the team’s offer to cover $425 million of construction costs is contingent on building in Arden Hills instead of Minneapolis.

If a new stadium does end up in Arden Hills, the chairwoman of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation suggested the tribe could build and operate a casino at the site. Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said the tribe has estimated $300 million the year in profits that would be split between the tribe itself and the state of Minnesota, which could use it to fund the enter public share of stadium construction with money likely left over to spend on other pressing state needs.

“It maintains the exclusivity of tribal gambling,” Vizenor said, in reference to other proposals Tuesday from private interests seeking to build a downtown Minneapolis casino; add video slot machines at two horse-racing tracks in the Twin Cities; and authorize current paper pull-tab games at bars and restaurants to be replaced with electronic betting devices.

Vizenor said it would also enhance gambling equity between the state’s existing tribes; it’s not the first time White Earth, located in remote northwestern Minnesota, has sought to open a casino in the Twin Cities market that would compete with highly profitable tribal casinos in Shakopee, Hinckley and Red Wing.

Vikings executives also touted their own support for paying at least a portion of the public share with game-related tax revenue in the form of a Vikings-themed state lottery game, a sales tax surcharge on NFL memorabilia, hospitality taxes and dedication of income tax proceeds from Vikings employees, players and visiting players.

Proceeds from that last item alone would be enough to pay back construction bonds on a public share up to $650 million, Poppen said.

Lawmakers also discussed the possibility of diverting money from the state’s Legacy fund, replenished by a statewide sales tax approved by voters in 2008 to fund arts and cultural programs. About two dozen people from the arts community protested that idea outside the hearing room.

“When we got this through the Legislature, when we sold it to voters, never once was there even a suggestion it would go to the Vikings,” said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. “This would be a betrayal of voters.”

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