Vikings fans should still have tailgating options at new stadium

Preserving Vikings fans' tailgating culture remains a high priority with regard to the new stadium.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota citizens with a taste for grilled food, cold beverages and Vikings victories need not fret as the organization moves forward on its new stadium.

Even among all the ongoing complexities of funding, building and operating a state-of-the-art facility that not only gives the team a new home but essentially links both sides of downtown Minneapolis, preserving this fan base's tailgating culture remains a high priority, Vikings director of corporate communications Jeff Anderson said.

"Obviously, an urban stadium creates some challenges in terms of tailgating, but tailgating is a time-honored tradition for our fans and a very important part of our game-day experience," said Anderson, who's bouncing back and forth between Winter Park and Mankato this week. "Our fans want to be close to the stadium, and we want to provide for that."

The Vikings' three current designated "purple tailgate" lots northwest of the Metrodome are set to be assumed by Ryan Companies for its adjacent $400 million Downtown East development plan. Ryan is currently negotiating the purchase of five blocks that belong to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, three of which serve as purple lots on Sundays during football seasons.

While Ryan's project -- which includes office, housing and retail space and a large public park -- is hoped to help revitalize the entire area around the new stadium, it will cut out at least 820 team-leased tailgating spots.

It's for that reason tailgating was one of the hot-button issues discussed by the stadium project's city-appointed implementation committee, which last Thursday approved the stadium's design to be passed on to the City Planning Commission and, later, the City Council. According to Anderson, a Vikings survey issued to season and single-game ticket purchasers revealed that about 8,400 fans tailgated at most or all Minnesota's home games last season.

Some have their own, private space for doing so in the blocks surrounding the Metrodome. But in the center of downtown, where open areas are scarce, many have relied on the purple lots for their pre- and postgame eating, drinking and merriment.

And the responses favored continuing to do so in the new stadium's immediate vicinity -- 54 percent said they likely wouldn't tailgate further away and come to the stadium via shuttle or light rail.

As part of its recommendations, the 25-person implementation committee voted last week to expand tailgating space around the stadium.  The facility's design plans call for a three-acre plaza. That and the nearby park offer prime real estate for designated tailgating spots, Anderson said.

"We're working with the city of Minneapolis to expand an official tailgating zone in a way that keeps our fans close to the stadium on game days," Anderson said. "I think what's exciting is, if . . . this (nine-acre) city park moves forward and we can tailgate on a nearly three-acre plaza, that's going to create a lot of game-day opportunities that don't exist around the NFL."

It's hoped that the green space will include ample parking space for tailgate vehicles on all sides, creating a sort of miniature village before and after home games.

It's not the sprawling lots of Green Bay's Lambeau Field or Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, but simultaneous development of the area around the venue offers opportunities to "do something that's never been done before," Anderson said.

That includes the see-through design of the jagged, open-feel stadium itself, the images of which were unveiled in May. Construction won't begin until mid-to-late October, but a few noteworthy steps in the process have taken place since visuals were first released.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of tailgating space, the implementation committee introduced several other design recommendations. Their main objective is to ensure the stadium serves as a connector for both sides of downtown Minneapolis and is incorporated into the bordering Mill District and Elliot Park neighborhoods, along with the Ryan project.

The committee also endorsed on-site businesses within the stadium's confines that are open year-round, specifically a team store and a restaurant, to maintain foot traffic in the area throughout the year.

"We've always talked about the fact that we consider our mission to be a much broader economic development of the entire area, the east side of downtown," said Michele Kelm-Helgen, the chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.

"There certainly is no question that this was a good location for the new stadium to be built and the new stadium would have an enormous impact on the area."

Continued development after the $975 million stadium's scheduled 2016 opening means the Vikings might have to move tailgating spots around from year to year, but Anderson said the organization is prepared for that.

While Mortenson Construction is under contract as the complex's primary builder, the MSFA is currently accepting bids from contractors for all the extraneous projects that accompany construction -- plumbing, electric, landscaping and the like.

It was also announced last week that vending company Aramark will be in charge of concessions inside the stadium and on its plaza. The company serves premium dining options at the Metrodome and is the chief food provider at TCF Bank Stadium and 12 other NFL venues.

Design approval from the City Planning Commission and City Council is expected within the next 45 days. Once that process is complete, the state can issue bonds for its $348 million contribution to the stadium. That step is expected to take place in September, Kelm-Helgen said.

The team is also in the early stages of planning fan-friendly events surrounding the new facility's groundbreaking and commemorating the Metrodome and Mall of America Field in their final year of operation. Ideas being tossed around include an all-Metrodome team and in-game highlights of events that have taken place during the building's 31 years of existence. A preview center will be set up this fall inside the nearby, vacant 1010 Metrodome Square office building where fans can keep tabs on construction as it's taking place.

The dome's demolition following the 2013 season will be open to the public, too, but Anderson hopes that's not until late January or early February.

"Hopefully we're playing a playoff game or two that's the final game there," said Anderson, who added that tours of the construction site will be available once the project gets rolling. "I think it's gonna be a fun year."

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