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Perception vs. Reality in the Vikings Stadium Debate

The Minnesota Vikings' stadium situation is at a critical point. The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires after the 2011 season and the team's hopes for building at Ramsey County's TCAAP property in Arden Hills hinge on Governor Mark Dayton calling a special session of the Legislature this fall. Governor Dayton has charged the Met Council and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission to review the proposed stadium site in Arden Hills to assess the site's environmental and economic feasibility. This review is supposed to uncover any surprises with the site and examine exactly what permits would be necessary so stadium construction can go forward. Personally, I have my doubts about the intentions of both the Met Council and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, neither of whom have a vested interest in paving the way for a non-Minneapolis stadium site, but the Vikings say that they see the review as a positive step toward helping the stadium project become a reality so I'm trying to stay positive.

What is more concerning is that Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers want to the proposed .5% county-wide sales tax increase (source of Ramsey County's $350 million contribution to a new stadium in Arden Hills) before voters as a referendum. On the face of it, giving Ramsey County voters a voice in a .5% sales tax increase seems like responsible government. In reality, it puts the potential loss of the Vikings on voters instead of on state politicians who were involved in a budget showdown with Governor Dayton because they didn't want to raise taxes to balance the state budget. Zellers and Koch are covering their butts because 2012 is an election year and they don't want to be accused of raising taxes to help wealthy NFL owners build stadium.

According to reports in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, opinion polls show "widespread opposition to using taxpayer money on a new stadium." If this report is true (and I'm always suspicious when polls don't state their sample size and statistical margin of error), then it's possible that making the .5% Ramsey County sales tax increase subject to a county-wide voter referendum could not only kill the team's hopes for an Arden Hills, but could also end Minnesota's 50 years of having an NFL franchise.

If the sales tax increase goes to a voter referendum, which is apparently unlikely to pass, there's no incentive for the Wilf family to retain ownership of the team. After all, why would any self-respecting businessman keep a business that can't grow? And, if the Wilfs do sell, no new owner will keep the Vikings in Minnesota with a hostile legislature that won't help the team get a new stadium.

Have you ever been at a really awkward social gathering? No one ever wants to be the last one to leave the sad, needy host, but nobody wants to be there either. Well, that's the situation the Vikings find themselves in with the Metrodome. I can't remember a time when anyone was ever fond of the Metrodome, it's the stadium equivalent of an awkward social gathering. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they are the last team to call the place home and the facility won't generate the funds for its upkeep without them.

Stadium myths exposed after the jump.

The Metrodome was built as a multi-use sports facility and the teams who played there dealt with it as best they could-kvetching the whole time. Baseball was supposed to be played under the summer sky to the sound of birds chirping and children laughing. It was simply a cryin' shame to have the Gophers football team play off campus like sports refugees. And OMG, football was a game best appreciated with the smell of autumn leaves in the air and hazy sunshine glinting off natural turf.

I don't debate those points and, having recently seen the Metrodome under the improved lighting that goes with its new roof, it's difficult to come up with redeeming qualities for the Metrodome other than that it's currently inflated. What I do take issue with is that the University of Minnesota and the Pohlad family who own the Minnesota Twins are not considered chiseling rats for wanting new facilities, but the Wilfs and the Vikings, last remaining residents of the Metrodome, are ungrateful jerks because they want a better facility too. Yeah, that's fair.

If I had to blame this skewed perception on any one thing, I would have to call it a blatant failure, if not intentional screwing, of the Vikings by the local media. In a prissy, possibly even sophomoric, attempt to not be the bought dogs of a business interest, Twin Cities media outlets have gone to the opposite extreme to paint the Vikings' stadium quest as some kind of puppy-raping corporate greed that takes advantage of the wholesome Minnesota taxpayers and puppies everywhere. Please, think of the puppies.

While it isn't the media's job to cheerlead a business's efforts, one would hope it also wasn't their goal to shamelessly, and carelessly, topedo a business that employs 115 (not including players and coaches) tax-paying Minnesota residents.

This stadium-related informational imbalance annoys me. It creates a ridiculous perception of the team and encourages an anti-stadium attitude that is based on little more than economic bigotry. In thinking about the stadium issue it reminded me of an ad campaign by Rolling Stone magazine. Feeling that the flawed perception of the magazine was hurting its ability to attract ad revenue, in 1985 Rolling Stone created an ad campaign challenging those mistaken perceptions with the reality. Guess what I'm going to do...

Perception: Minnesota shouldn't provide a new stadium for around 60 millionaire players and coaches and their billionaire owners.

Reality: The Minnesota Vikings employ 115 people other than the players and coaches. Including players and coaches, that number is closer to 200 employees, all living in Minnesota and paying property taxes, sales taxes, vehicle registration fees, transportation taxes, income taxes, etc. to the state of Minnesota. On a game day at the Metrodome, the Vikings organization supports 2,800 full- and part-time jobs. While the players and coaches are wealthy, there are numerous people who aren't wealthy who work either for or with the Vikings franchise. It is remarkably callous of the local media to play a part in screwing those folks out of a job.

Incidentally, the Vikings treat their employees well. During the recent NFL lockout the Vikings did not lay-off their staff or reduce staff hours even though other NFL teams did. I think that's surprisingly generous and fair considering it's hard for an NFL team to generate revenue when the team's players are locked out.

Perception: The Metrodome is still a viable facility that the Vikings could continue to use for years to come, especially now that it has a new roof and new turf.

Reality: While it's true that the new roof is probably going to be good for several years to come, the Metrodome is an outmoded facility, a total relic when compared to modern stadium construction. Oh, who am I kidding-it's a dump. The locker rooms are dismal and cramped, making it difficult for media to talk to players after the games. There aren't many luxury boxes, which limits the team's ability to bring in revenue-something that other NFL owners are quick to point out. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been vocal in his irritation in his team's profits being used to subsidize less profitable franchises like the Vikings.

The fan experience at the Metrodome isn't great either. There's no room for tailgating near the Dome. Although the Dome was built to have thousands of people sit and cheer during a game, it isn't built for any kind of fan convenience during halftime or after the game. During halftime a fan can either use the bathroom (trough urinals boys!) or buy a snack, but if you try to do both of those things you'll likely miss the third quarter. And, more important than fan convenience, in a post-9/11 America, there's a heightened attention to public safety at stadiums, convention centers, and other large facilities considered prime targets for a terror attack. As anyone who has ever inched along the narrow concourses after a game at the Metrodome knows, evacuating that building quickly and safely in the event of an emergency would be almost impossible.

Perception: For the state of Minnesota to take money from schools and roads, during a recession no less, to pay for a stadium is absolutely irresponsible.

Reality: I agree, it would be absolutely irresponsible if state legislators took money from Minnesota's general fund to pay for a Vikings stadium at the expense of children's educations and safe roads. However, the state's $300 million contribution to a new Vikings stadium would not come from the general fund. In fact, the state's $300 million contribution would come from tax revenue from stadium suites, taxes on the sale of pro sports memorabilia, and Vikings lottery taxes.

And, the state wants to use funds from its $300 million stadium contribution to fix the roads near the proposed site in Arden Hills (estimated $130 million cost). This creative financing approach to road maintenance looks hinky because, according to Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, funds were promised to fix those roads ten years ago. Using money out of the state's proposed stadium contribution to fix roads that already had money promised for them out of the state's transportation fund seems decidedly shady.

Perception: It is ridiculous to pay nearly a $1 billion for the Vikings to play 10 to 12 games a year in a new football stadium.

Reality: Again, it would be absolutely ridiculous to spend $1 billion on a facility used 10 to 12 times a year. But, not to worry, Governor Mark Dayton was adamant that a new football stadium would be a "people's stadium", something that sounds an awful lot like the Metrodome.

Sometimes referred to as Minnesota's rec center, the Dome hosts activities 300 days a year, only 10 to 12 of which are Vikings games. During the other, 290-288 days a year the Dome is home to high school sports, amateur athletics, skating around the upper concourse, annual conventions, celebrations and a host of other things that have nothing to do with the Vikings. Currently the Metrodome costs an average of $10-11 million a year to run. The Vikings pay around $6 million a year for the Dome's upkeep. So, even though the Vikings use the Dome only 4% of the time, they pay more than 50% of the building's operating costs.

A new "people's stadium", would likely host many of the activities that the Metrodome now hosts. Operating costs are projected to run from $14-18 million a year with the Vikings picking up 90% of the operating costs. So, to be clear, if the Vikings get a new stadium built in Ramsey County, the team would still use the facility 10-12 times a year. If the stadium follows Governor Dayton's plan and hosts the same amount of events as the Metrodome, it will be used 290-288 times apart from football. But the Vikings would pay 90% of the new stadium's operating costs rather than 50% of the Dome's operating costs. Under those terms, the state could end up paying less money in annual operating costs for a new stadium than it's currently paying for a 30-year-old wreck.

Perception: Minnesota needs to focus on creating jobs to help ordinary, hardworking people through this recession, rather than building stadiums.

Reality: On Labor Day in Detroit, President Barack Obama said that there are a million unemployed construction workers in the U.S.A. who could be put to work rebuilding the nation's bridges and roads. In moving forward with upgrades to the transportation infrastructure around the proposed Vikings stadium site in Arden Hills, Minnesota legislators have a chance to put people in construction, one of the hardest hit segments of the economy, back to work and might even be eligible for federal grant money to help make it happen.

In addition to the embarrassingly neglected roads around the TCAAP property, construction on the stadium itself is projected to support 13,000 jobs, 7,500 of those jobs in construction and trade work, over the three years of construction and paying $286 million in wages. Hmmm, I wonder how many unionized workers you'd need to build a stadium? Probably a lot, so I have to wonder why organized labor interests in Minnesota aren't getting out their purple and gold pompoms right now. Heck, isn't that one of the goals of labor unions? Union members may want to consider lobbying their union representatives to support a Vikings stadium project.

And. even if some of the work on the stadium is awarded to out of state companies, it will still stimulate the local economy because it will inject money into the local economy that would not have been spent in Minnesota if not for a new stadium. Out of state contractors working in Ramsey County will have to find a place to stay in Minnesota while working on a stadium (hotel tax), they'll have to fill up their vehicles with gasoline (transportation tax), they'll eat in restaurants (sales tax) staffed by Minnesota workers (income tax), and in their off hours they'll take in leisure activities, like a movie or a baseball game or buying a book (more sales tax), all here in Minnesota.

A construction project of this magnitude that also involves transportation infrastructure, would, like the WPA programs during the Great Depression, put a lot of ordinary people in the hard hit construction industry back to work. Stadium construction means jobs-jobs for ordinary people.

This post doesn't address all the mistaken perceptions out there regarding the Vikings' efforts to get a new stadium, but it hits a few and, in the coming days, we'll look at more of the mistaken perceptions swirling around the stadium issue.

In the meantime, if you want the Vikings to stay in Minnesota, get vocal. Talk to your state representatives, talk to your neighbors and friends, talk to your union representatives. Minnesota Momentum and Save the Vikes are both good places to go for information about how you can get involved in the fight to keep the Vikings in Minnesota. The time for Minnesota nice is long gone.

And if you are from out of state and visit Minnesota for Vikings games, please write to the Minnesota Department of Tourism and tell them that having an NFL team is a tourism draw. Right now people are focusing on the cost of the stadium, rather than the cost of losing the Vikings. Let's change that.