The Peculiar Case of the Metrodome Site

Behold, the Minnesota Vikings' current home, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Possibly also their future home. Stay tuned.

With as many intriguing twists and head-scratching turns as the Minnesota Vikings' efforts to get a new stadium built in Minnesota have taken, the development that continually fascinates me is that the Metrodome site is likely the frontrunner in the stadium sweepstakes.

Dome sweet home, sort of

If there was ever a time when fans, teams, and players liked the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, I don't remember it. I'm not saying that there haven't been people who thought the Metrodome was the bee's knees, just that I can't think of any.

At the time it was built the Dome was seen as a workable, if not thrilling, option for a year-round sports facility that would house the Minnesota Twins, the University of Minnesota Gophers football team, and the Minnesota Vikings. It would also provide a place for high school sports championships and a variety of events and activities for Minnesotans regardless of what our fickle weather was doing outside. People weren't thrilled about the slightly generic facility, but they were all in it together-both literally and metaphorically.

However, thirty years later the Twins are playing at Target Field, the Gophers are once again on the University of Minnesota campus, playing at TCF Bank Stadium, and the Vikings are the last of the Metrodome's original anchor tenants. And, for the last ten years, spanning three different team ownership groups, the Vikings have also been trying to get out of the Metrodome. So far, to no avail.

All of that could change with the team's current lease at the Metrodome being up next month. For the last couple years the Vikings have said that they have no interest in signing a new lease until a deal for a new stadium is reached. With the Minnesota Legislature not scheduled to convene until January 24, 2012 and no stadium bill in the "finishing touches" stage, the team looks like it's on track to be homeless come February.

Lots more stadium talk after the jump.

Stadium sites, fortunately all in Minnesota

It seems like every day there's a new report about which site currently has the edge in becoming the site that will eventually house a new Vikings stadium. Locally, the mood, whether rightly or wrongly, is that a stadium deal will eventually get done but that things aren't urgent yet.

Back in May 2011 Minneapolis unveiled a plan for a revamped Metrodome on its 20-acre current site that generated public buzz and the feeling that Minneapolis was proactively seeking a stadium solution for the Vikings ($895-907 million depending on the estimate). The Vikings, however, were politely noncommittal. Just a day later, the Vikings revealed that they had been working with Ramsey County officials for months on a plan to build a stadium on 260 acres in Arden Hills at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) for $1.1 billion. Two other Minneapolis sites, one near the Basilica of St. Mary's ($1.03 billion) and one in the area of the Minneapolis Farmers Market (34 acres, $1.04 billion) by Target Field, had also been suggested as possible sites. The most recent addition to the menu of possible sites came last week when Shakopee submitted a proposal to build a stadium on 130 acres not far from Valley Fair ($920 million).

It's not the size, it's how you use it?

Allegedly, size isn't everything, especially with real estate where "location, location, location" is the mantra. But, despite not being everything, size is definitely a thing. And it is a thing that the Vikings want in a potential stadium site, which is why they chose to partner Ramsey County. According to the proposal, the TCAAP property has room for 21,000 parking spaces, something that would enable more fans to enjoy the tailgating tradition they used to have at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. But in the months since that announcement there has been a strong push by Minneapolis city leaders to keep the team not only in Minneapolis, but at the current Metrodome site.

There are financial reasons* why this doesn't appeal to the Vikings who would lose revenue during the construction process when they would have to play three seasons at TCF Bank Stadium, but it seems like it runs a bit deeper than the construction relocation hassles.

Perhaps the more challenging problem in getting the Vikings to go along with any proposed site in downtown Minneapolis is that it seems to run completely contrary to the fan experience the team wants to create on game days. A return to wide-spread tailgating outside the stadium before games would mark a significant change in the game-day Vikings football experience available in Minnesota. And, if it happened, it would provide Vikings fans with an experience more like the tailgating available to Kansas City Chiefs fans outside Arrowhead Stadium. From the Vikings' community marketing perspective, a renewed tradition of widespread tailgating could make Vikings games a day-long activity for fans instead of a 3-4 hour diversion. This, from what the team has said, is a big, hairy deal to the Vikings because it has to do with the kind of identity they want to create as a football destination.

That kind of a widespread tailgating tradition may be more difficult to create at an urban stadium. All of the Minneapolis stadium sites tout the benefits of the infrastructure that is already in place, particularly access to public transportation. However, arriving at games via public transportation presents some challenges to tailgating. Although it isn't impossible to do, carrying a grill and cooler on the bus or the train isn't nearly as easy as transporting them via a vehicle, even one as small as a 1986 Honda Civic hatchback. But, supposing that an intrepid bus or train commuter did wrangle tailgating equipment to the game, where would they set up? And, what would they do with their equipment during the game?

More likely than tailgating by bus or train, a fan with the urge to grill would suck it up and drive to the game, an option some fans already embrace. Currently, you can't tailgate very close to the Metrodome, but that might change if the stadium is rebuilt and the surrounding area given a facelift. The other concern is that, right now, there aren't many spots for tailgating, certainly not as many spots as would be available at suburban sites in Arden Hills or Shakopee. Even so, there are still hardcore fans who find a way to tailgate and there probably always will be.

Lots of suspicions, very few answers

So, an urban stadium at the Metrodome site doesn't seem like an ideal fit with the tailgating-focused game-day experience the team wants to create. But there are two other possible stadium sites in Minneapolis with larger footprints that might better accommodate tailgating and achieve a compromise that would be more acceptable to the Vikings. And, if the goal of Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson is to show the Vikings that they can create a similar game-day tailgating experience in an urban setting, then why not pitch one of those sites? Either of those sites would keep the team, and the revenue their games generate, in downtown Minneapolis and could take advantage of existing transportation infrastructure. So why focus support so on a site that the Vikings have repeatedly said is a "non-starter"?

I really wish I knew. All I'm left with is a whole lot of suspicions, possibly baseless. Here are my suspicions about why Mayor Rybak and the Minneapolis City Council continue to promote the Metrodome site so staunchly despite the Vikings concerns about the site.

  • I suspect that the Minneapolis city leaders didn't proactively work with the Vikings to find a stadium solution because they didn't expect the team would get a better offer. Waiting so long to address the issue with the Vikings doesn't look like leadership, it looks more like brinksmanship.
  • I suspect that city leaders' interest in the urban, public transportation lifestyle meant that the Vikings' interest in renewing the tailgating tradition took city leaders by surprise. They didn't have an answer to the challenge of the Vikings wanting to change the fans' game-day experience, so they ignored it.
  • I suspect those advocating the Metrodome site thought they could regain ground from Arden Hills by going with a site that wouldn't require them to negotiate with multiple property owners (like the Farmers Market site that the Twins favor for the Vikings) or require a site feasibility study** (like the Arden Hills site was subject to). But, shouldn't any project involving millions in taxpayer money be subject to a feasibility study so potential hidden costs and problems can be accounted for?
  • I suspect that the Minneapolis mayor and city council are expecting, and will likely get, the governor's support for their preferred site, regardless of how late or half-assed their leadership has been on this issue (only a four-page proposal for a multi-million dollar project?), because Minneapolis is the seat of DFL power in Minnesota and Governor Mark Dayton needs all the political support he can get in the face of a Republic majority in the Legislature.
  • I suspect that the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission (owner and operator of the Metrodome) is incredibly uncomfortable with possibility of running the Metrodome without an anchor tenant to generate a large portion of the building's $10-11 million in annual operating costs. Right now the Vikings are responsible for $6 million in operating costs at the Metrodome.

The Vikings' bid for a new stadium is plagued by poor timing because of the economic downturn, but it is also affected by the fact that the team is the last remaining anchor tenant. I can't help wondering if it was the Twins or the Gophers leaving the Metrodome last, whether they would have faced the requirement that their new facilities be roofed "people's stadiums" that could house year-round activities. We'll never know.

But, what we may find out is whether or not the Vikings can reconcile themselves to a new stadium built on the Metrodome site, if that is the only way to build a new stadium in Minnesota.

*In addition to losing revenue playing three seasons at TCF Stadium while a revamped Metrodome was under construction, the Vikings have said that costly upgrades would have to be made to the stadium and to parking in the area. They estimate the total additional cost to be $67 million, which would make the cost of building at the Metrodome site closer to $962 million instead of the $895 million original estimate. If those numbers are accurate, then the $920 million Shakopee stadium proposal would supplant the Metrodome proposal as the cheapest stadium plan.

**The proposed Ramsey County stadium site in Arden Hills was subject to a site feasibility study at the recommendation of Governor Dayton, conducted by the Metropolitan Council (members appointed by the governor) and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission (head appointed by the governor, other members appointed by the Minneapolis City Council). The study suggested that the construction could not be completed within the proposed timeframe, and that the costs of procuring the property from the federal government (who owns it) and cleaning up the pollution on the site would cost too much. Since those findings were made public, Ramsey County reached a formal Offer to Purchase agreement with the federal government, including pollution clean-up costs, that falls within their original $30 million estimate. Also, Mortenson Construction, the company that built the last three major stadiums in Minnesota, has said that while the construction timeframe Ramsey County put forth is aggressive, it is still feasible. So far, the proposed Ramsey County stadium site in Arden Hills is the only site that has been subject to a site feasibility study.

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