Story for The UpTake By Andy Birkey/Video by Bill Sorem
The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority met Thursday evening to finalize agreements with the Minnesota Vikings for a new stadium scheduled to open in 2016. Instead of a celebration, however, the meeting devolved into an angry shouting match at times, as residents criticized the lack of public input in the process. To add to the strained atmosphere, Gov. Mark Dayton held a press conference before the meeting at which he begrudgingly accepted that private seat license fees — a revenue-raising gimmick he has said he strongly opposes — are part of the deal.
It was all part of an increasingly pressurized effort to keep the $1-billion stadium deal rolling despite a number of problems that have cropped up in recent months — from the fraud conviction of the Vikings’ owners in a New Jersey court to Dayton’s claims that he didn’t know that the legislation he signed last year allowed the Vikings to collect millions in seat licenses. Unless ground is broken for the new stadium this fall — no date yet has been set — the timetable for the project may be thrown off schedule. Yesterday’s complicated and controversial meeting of the stadium authority was one sign of the ratcheting up of pressure to get the deal done before any more wheels come off.
The stadium “development and use” agreements passed yesterday spell the out the 30-year deal between the Vikings, backed by owners Zygi and Mark Wilf and the Authority, a public entity that represents the State of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis. The agreements dictate how the money ponied up by the taxpayers and funds from the Vikings will be spent in the construction and maintenance of the stadium, as well as the uses for the new building.
Angering members of the public who attended the Authority meeting in the Metrodome was the fact that the agreements were not available for public inspection until the authority met to approve them; they were posted to the authority website at 5 p.m., the same time Thursday’s meeting got underway. None were made available to the public at the meeting, either. In fact, it wasn’t clear that the authority members had even read the finalized agreements they were to approve. What’s more, no public comments were permitted before the vote to approve the agreements no one had seen.
It didn’t sit well with the audience. A motion was made and seconded to approve the agreements when a man stood up and said, “Excuse me. Don’t we have chance to speak before this is approved?”
Authority chair Michele Kelm-Helgen answered, “There’s a public comment period that we do at the end.”
“This is before you approve it right?” the man followed up.
“No,” she said.
“Then why the hell are we here? This is a kangaroo show.”
The authority passed the agreements unanimously, with only one member asking a question — an obscure one concerning whether international Vikings games at the stadium would result in lost revenue.
By the time the meeting moved to the public comment portion, audience members were agitated.
Bob Carney, Jr., a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, said, “Testimony is being allowed after the vote. This is a travesty. This is a complete joke. This is not what the open meeting law is about, and because of that, this meeting and this approval is illegal. It’s going to be challenged.”
Jeff Wagner slammed a pack of cigarettes on the table. His shoes soon would follow.
“We have a situation where [authority member Bill] McCarthy, over here in the back of the room, told those people that it’s basically approved” prior to the vote, he said. “You are not elected by the people and basically just take money from the people and give it to the Wilfs?
“I’m a smoker,” Wagner continued. “See this,” he said, holding up a pack of cigarettes. “I’m paying for the frickin’ stadium and it just gets really old. I’m completely pissed off.”
Wagner took off his shoes, slammed them on the table, and added, “You can keep my shoes, because basically you are just stealing from the people. Thank you.”
Wagner left as a security guard cleared the shoes from the table.
Dave Bicking, a Minneapolis resident, also addressed the committee.
“You don’t have a contract out there for people to look at before the meeting. I don’t know if you commissioners had a chance to look at the whole contract,” he said. “If you only had the summary here, the highlights, it would be outrageous for you to vote on it, of course. If you did have the whole contract available, under the open meeting law, what you were voting on, the things that are discussed at a meeting must be available to the public at the meeting. That is the law. So, it’s either outrageous that you voted without knowing what was going on or it’s illegal, the meeting and the vote.”
The authority defended its decisions, however, and laid responsibility for them at the foot of the Legislature.
Following the public comments, authority member Duane Benson said, “I think it’s important we have these comments,” he said. “A lot of what the comments are around are decisions that have already made by the Legislature. That’s the decisions that they make. We don’t appropriate any money. We execute what the Legislature has passed.”
He said if people have complaints, they should target those at the Minnesota Legislature or the Minneapolis City Council.
Kelm-Helgen added, “The agreements mirror the legislation. I mean, it is definitely a mirror of what was passed.”
But at the Legislature, more confusion reigned as the officials tasked with supervising the stadium deal from the Capitol expressed the same frustration that the public was expressing at the Metrodome. The Legislative Commission on Sports Facilities, which serves as the state oversight for the authority and overall stadium use and construction, met yesterday afternoon, just ahead of the authority meeting, but didn’t get any answers to its questions.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, asked about the oversight role of the commission and the fact that the commission couldn’t ask Kelm-Helgen about the agreements — which the oversight committee also had not seen. “My sense was that [oversight] was part of our role to review as things move ahead,” he said. “But to sit here and not have an opportunity to ask you about what is going into the agreements and then you are going to act on the agreements before we know what is in the agreements… ?
“You can kind of understand my ill-at-ease.”
Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, told a reporter after the meeting, “We learned today that the oversight committee provides no oversight.”
Barrett echoed those concerns at the Authority meeting later yesterday. He was concerned about the seat licensing, fees charged to fans on top of ticket prices for season tickets. The authority announced Thursday that those fees, ranging from $500 to $10,000 to “license” a seat and allow the purchaser to them pay more to buy season tickets, would raise an estimated $100 million in revenues for the Wilfs, which they could use to fund part of their “contribution” to the stadium deal. Basically a pass-through from the fans to the team, the Vikings kindly have agreed to make it easier for the fans by offering credit to fans to help them finance their seats in the “People’s Stadium.” Actually, the cost of that credit “help” will come from the seat license revenues themselves, not from the Vikings.
But an angry Barrett noted there was no discussion of added fees on the upscale luxury suites that comprise a not-insignificant portion of the seats in the new stadium.
“The fact that you haven’t commented on that leaves me very troubled,” Barrett said. “I don’t know who gets that revenue. I’m afraid there might have been a mistake tonight in that you haven’t talked about that at all. Your committee approved that without any question on it at all.”
Dayton several times has criticized the seat license part of the deal, which was crafted in part by his staff last year, and signed into law by the governor — apparently without his awareness that seat licenses were in the deal…even though that part of the package was fiercely attacked during the legislative debates. Yesterday, at his press conference, Dayton said he now accepts the idea of seat licenses.
“I accept that that’s part of professional sports, certainly part of professional football,” he said. “We wouldn’t have an agreement here — we wouldn’t have a team staying here — if we didn’t accede to that demand on the team’s part from the very beginning of the process with the Legislature.”
But another Dayton idea — that the Wilfs should be required to pay significantly more from their own resources for the stadium? Nothing seems to have come of that.
For now, the stadium deal continues to move forward, slouching towards 2016.