Football fans, elected leaders and Vikings big shots assembled under a heated tent on Tuesday to celebrate the symbolic groundbreaking for a new Vikings stadium and the demolition of the old Metrodome. Pastries, coffee and ranks of gold-painted shovels and purple-horned hard hats were arrayed for the event, which was celebrated with a round of fireworks in the east parking lot of the Metrodome. The explosions may have been apt: Despite the festive celebration, the groundbreaking was carried out with an air of urgency: The $1 billion stadium, facing a host of political and financial problems, is still under the gun and the fake hole — the dignitaries used their shovels on a carefully arranged foot-deep pile of dirt that had been manicured above the cement parking surface, the black dirt surrounded by green swatches of indoor-outdoor carpeting giving the appearance of a freshly dug grave site — is not likely to be the end of things.
The “groundbreaking” almost didn’t happen this year. It was supposed to have occurred months ago, after the state sold the bonds to pay for the stadium. That sale was supposed to take place in March, but with deep concerns surrounding the stadium’s funding that arose after it became clear that the electronic pulltab scheme that was supposed to pay the state’s share was a failure, the bond sale was delayed repeatedly.
At this point, the bonds are slated to be sold in January, almost a year behind schedule.
Final agreements between the state, Minneapolis, and the Vikings also had to be signed before the groundbreaking. But those agreements were delayed after the state’s partner in the deal, Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf, were convicted in a civil fraud and racketeering case in New Jersey and ordered to pay $84.5 million in restitution. That triggered a state investigation and background check of the Wilfs and another delay, this one of more than a month.
State authorities also wanted the construction contracts in place before a groundbreaking, but those were delayed due to cost overruns. The construction sector has picked up significantly since the Legislature passed the stadium deal last year, and costs for the new stadium have increased sharply. State and Minneapolis officials seemed eager to sink their shovels into the dirt before anything more could come apart, crossing their fingers that the project, once underway, can’t be stopped.
“Obviously, getting here today has been a long process, for some people even longer than myself,” Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission head Michele Kelm-Helgen told the crowd — a mixed scrum of VIP’s and purple-painted fans. “I see a team of people who have come together to make this a reality and build this stadium.”
She said the stadium will “re-establish Minnesota as top city in the country to attract all these major events and put us on the map.”
Map-makers, take note. Minnesota is now on the map, or will be soon. Just watch.
“I want to thank our partners, the Minnesota Vikings,” Kelm-Helgen continued. “At critical points in the project they stepped up and in these last few weeks they stepped up again. The Vikings have offered to extend a line of credit to the construction of the stadium. It’s on a contingency basis, so any money saved on the project will go back to the Vikings.
Kelm-Helgen touted the possibility of a Super Bowl or Final Four tournament, high school sports and monster truck rallies, and, “of course, I imagine those Rollerbladers who will be a part of the dome as well.”
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf then took to the podium: “What a day. Since we became owners it was always our intent to first bring a championship and build a new stadium,” he said. “Well, we are embarking on both. Today is a great day for all the people of Minnesota.” Wilf made no mention of his team’s 3-and-8 record this season, with one tie. The new stadium is scheduled to be complete by 2016; no timetable has been established for an NFL championship.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a major engineer of the deal, thanked the city council for its efforts and gave a nod
to mayor-elect Betsy Hodges who, as a council member,voted against the deal in 2012.
“I’m very, very happy our new mayor-elect, Betsy Hodges, who played a very key role on our implementation committee, is really committed to moving this forward.” Rybak, who knew many of the purple fans by name and was hugged by some who proclaimed him as “President Rybak,” said “Democracy sometimes comes with horns and purple facepaint.”
Rybak, a DFLer, touted the bipartisan nature of the stadium deal. “It was such a privilege to work with Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning (both Republican lawmakers were on hand Tuesday). “They are from different political parties than me, and you know what? It didn’t matter. That’s a really important lesson for us to learn.”
Gov. Mark Dayton said, “In a way it truly is a People’s Stadium. It’s the people of Minnesota who will build it. The people of Minnesota who will enjoy. The people of Minnesota for generations to come will inherit it, thanks to our dedication and hard work.”
The people of Minnesota will also, largely, pay for the stadium, although it is not clear yet how the state will fund its half-billion-dollar share now that the e-pulltabs have proved a non-starter. Despite the persistent problems and continuing criticism, Dayton spent much of his speech defending the project he has seemed to make the signature achievement of his first three years in the governor’s office.
After thanking Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson, he thanked “the six other members of the council who put their careers on the line to support this project in the midst of the controversy.”
Four of the seven stadium supporters have retired from the council or lost their battls for re-election last month: Don Samuels, Diane Hofstede, Sandy Colvin Roy,and Meg Tuthill. All were replaced by new council members who opposed the stadium deal.
“It’s easy to demagogue against a project like this, but demagoguery doesn’t put people to work,” Dayton said. “Demagoguery doesn’t build lasting legacies for generations to come. So those of you who risked their careers, who were standing with their constituents who support this proposal, I salute you.”
Unfortunately for those who “risked their careers,” the election results were consistent with opinion polls taken over the last few years: A majority of voters seemed strongly opposed to major public financing for a private sports team. Dayton may find the issue still has wheels if he runs for re-election, as expected, in 2014.
After the speech, Dayton was confronted by reporters in front of a pile of skirted with artificial turf and shovels painted gold. The questions were not celebratory in nature.
The reporters asked about the critics of the deal, the personal seat licenses on stadium seats imposed by the Vikings, whether or not the governor’s dip in approval ratings is due to the stadium deal, and his thoughts on the conviction of the Wilfs in the New Jersey civil fraud case.
To that, Dayton said, “The naysayers can go say ‘nay.’”