Vikings stadium debate tiresome, not pointless

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Remember when the Minnesota state legislative session was going to end on April 30?

No? Understandable. In the early hours of May 10, the thing was still going full steam. April 30 was a hundred million fighting words ago, with a thousand speeches into teeny-tiny microphones and a parade of ill-fitting blazers separating now and then.

Yes, you do remember? More than likely you’re frustrated. You wanted an answer last week. You’re the sports fan who’s been force-fed politics since Monday, and both the endless debates and the sense that this is less about a stadium than about political reputations have left a bitter taste in your mouth.

Rightfully so. Approving stadiums, situations like the one that came to a head in St. Paul this week, are a painful process. They involve a new set of rules, rooms of quibbling representatives who, with their deliberations and arguments, serve as the legal versions of the most nit-picky referees. They involve day after day (after day after day) of arguing and speechifying, the salient and intelligent points lost in the fog of overreaching comparisons and unanswerable questions. By the end, opinions are set, but the debate continues. It is the worst kind of game.

But with that said, to call it a game would be misleading. It’s a nine-step process, and seven of those methodical hurdles were cleared as of Thursday. The Senate’s yes vote on the amended $975 million stadium plan made resolution not yet complete but at least a foregone conclusion, and the suspense is likely finished.

Though founded, frustration and the “get it done now” attitude that echoed through the capitol and across the Internet this week, should be kept in check. The stakes were higher here, the winners and losers not the beneficiaries of million-dollar football contracts but rather the people of a state that will be responsible for fronting 51.1 percent of the bill for the Vikings’ new stadium. This was not something to be rushed.

This was a question of responsibility, and unlike several congressmen suggested, the threat of the Vikings leaving was not a hollow one. This wasn’t a fight between those who enjoy football and want their team in a nicer stadium and people who don’t; it was a tug-of-war between different principles and beliefs about how the stadium should be funded.

In a way, it all boils down to a point that Sen. John Howe, a Republican from Red Wing, made Thursday. “Everybody wants a yes vote,” he said. “Everybody wants a stadium, but at what cost?”

Everyone wants a stadium for what it yields: a future for the Vikings in Minnesota, an economic boost to the city of Minneapolis, jobs for construction workers, the colorful drawings of a beautiful stadium made real. They’ll get all that now, pending the Minneapolis City Council’s vote and Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature.

But stadiums funded in the way the Vikings’ will be take away from the government’s coffers, from money that could repay other debts, including $2.4 billion owed to the state’s schools. That’s the drawback, the burden that can’t be separated from the perks, and this fight came down to the size of the burden rather than the question of stadium or no stadium.

Much can be argued about the legislature’s decision. Is it the right one for the Vikings? Judging from the handshakes and smiles, the satisfied men with “Build It” buttons affixed to their suits mugging for cameras on Thursday afternoon, that answer is a resounding yes.

But for the people of Minneapolis? Really, there’s no way to say, no measure that quantifies this and negates the ideologies of fan allegiance and political bias. Yes, it will eat up tax dollars, but it will also flood money and jobs back into the city. There will be bar tabs and concessions bills, jerseys and ticket packages to be purchased. There’s a certain give and take between present and future that makes it impossible to say right now whether this is right or wrong, but it is setting a precedent that the people of Minnesota would be wise to remember.

By requiring the Vikings to pay $477 million up front – an 11.7 percent increase from the $427 million for which they were originally responsible – the legislature affirmed that public funds will be responsible for more than half of the stadium’s $975 million initial costs. That’s cutting the Vikings, a team that’s had just two winning seasons out of the past six, a pretty good deal. Sure, the legislature twisted the team’s proverbial arm by upping its stake – we may be letting you have it, but not without an extra pinch – but in the end, the Vikings got what they wanted and bucked the trend in the most recent NFL stadium construction plans.

Before Cowboys Stadium opened in 2009, six of the past seven new NFL stadiums were more than 50 percent funded by public dollars. But the league’s two newest stadiums, in Dallas and New Jersey, broke that mold in the country’s changed economy. Just look at the $1.3 billion it took to build Cowboys Stadium. Of that amount, public funds paid for just 28.3 percent. Or take the Jets’ and Giants’ MetLife Stadium, which cost $1.6 billion and was funded entirely with private dollars. That’s a far cry from what the Vikings got Thursday, which lies somewhere on the spectrum between those two plans and what it took to build Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium, which was 86 percent paid for with public financing.

In Minnesota, this is a study in ideology as much as it is a desperate attempt to strike a balance that will please and retain a team. In settling on the final cost distribution, Minnesota found its balance, but both supporters and opponents alike should realize that the precedent set involves more than just the goings-on of the spring of 2012. Looking back and recent history makes a bigger statement, and the approved plan is just the final piece in a chain of events that says a lot about the state government’s planning and foresight.

When the Vikings depart the Metrodome for this new field, they’ll be the building’s third tenant to move into a new home since 2009, when TCF Bank Stadium opened on the University of Minnesota campus. Since then, the Twins got their own new park – a $545 million project of which the team funded 33.9 percent – which is less troubling than the fact that the state legislature approved TCF knowing full well that the Vikings would make an earnest push for a new home within just a few years. Instead of working on a plan that might attempt to please both football teams, the university got its on-campus stadium, one that’s unsuitable for NFL play, and the Vikings were left to fight their own battle and gobble up more tax dollars not even a decade later.

There’s no way to undo the past, but it’s certainly hard to ignore history when it involves a flow of public dollars that’s yet to ebb. The upside is that after Thursday’s vote, Minnesota’s teams will be adequately housed for the next few decades or so. What remains to be seen is whether everyone involved can learn from this and figure out a better way to distribute and stretch public funds in the future. The Vikings asserted themselves and got their way this time, but Thursday’s truce is not guaranteed to be the case next time around.

Will the stadium be worth it? Fiscally, with the tweaks and amendments, it’s more likely to be, and sooner. But this started out as an issue more abstract than money. It’s about a team and a culture, and in those terms, the Vikings should see this stadium as a challenge. They got it, but only wins will truly earn it.

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