Eye of the Beholder

You look at the Vikings and see a football team. Zygi Wilf looks at the Vikings and sees a key that might unlock countless added development deals— here or somewhere else.

It may not have been the most eventful press conference of last year, but it was certainly the strangest. The mid-July gathering at the Crown Roller Mill building in downtown Minneapolis drew a handful of print and broadcast reporters, along with camera jocks from the local TV stations, to the second-floor atrium of the historic riverfront structure where some of the city's planning offices are located. The occasion was to have been a joint appearance by Mayor R.T. Rybak and Vikings owner Zygmunt Wilf to discuss—well, that wasn't exactly made clear in the mayor's press release, but everyone in attendance presumed there was a new Vikings stadium at the end of the PR rainbow. Not in Minneapolis, necessarily, but no matter: Wilf had already made clear that he was interested in redeveloping the downtown site of the Metrodome no matter where the new facility was built.

Rybak and Wilf finally emerged from a private meeting about 30 minutes late to greet the press. When the pair at last appeared, Wilf walked straight past the makeshift podium, past the row of television cameras, down the stairs, and out the door. He did not take questions from reporters. That left Rybak, along with Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, to field a few awkward queries. For the most part, the mayor claimed, it was a chance to talk with the New Jersey real estate mogul about the development potential in the Downtown East neighborhood that has been home to the Metrodome for nearly a quarter-century, and now found itself the beneficiary of a fresh wave of development keyed by the new Guthrie Theater and a rash of high-end residential housing with views of the Mississippi River.

There was a reason the press conference started late. According to Barb Johnson's account, Zygi Wilf had shown up displaying a detailed knowledge of the land in downtown Minneapolis, down to the present-day valuation of particular parcels. "He came in and unfurled a map and started talking land," Johnson explained afterward. "He even knew about the upper Mississippi [riverfront]. It was clear that he was not taking this lightly, and that he had done his homework."

As a staged media event, the whole thing was a bust. The day's proceedings were forgotten almost as quickly as Wilf was out the door.

 

FOUR MONTHS LATER, IT BECAME clear that Wilf's diligence on development opportunities served him well. Just before Thanksgiving, after four years of work, the Anoka County Board of Commissioners pulled the plug on the presumptive favorite site for a new Vikings stadium, an area labeled the "Northern Lights in Blaine." The project as proposed in the spring of 2005 had grown more ambitious over time, eventually taking in some 740 acres of total development featuring a 68,500-seat retractable-roof stadium, at least 800,000 square feet of retail shops and restaurants, a hotel, and untold quantities of housing and office space.

The stadium itself was initially projected to cost $675 million, of which $280 million was proposed to come from a county sales tax, $115 million from sales tax revenue the complex would generate, and $280 million from Wilf and the team's six other owners. Wilf also verbally pledged to put $1 billion total of his own money into the sprawling complex if public subsidies for the stadium were guaranteed. Anoka County and Blaine officials were anxious to have an interested developer to complement the municipality's National Sports Center, which already featured a soccer complex, hockey rinks, and a nearby TPC golf course.

The Blaine deal ultimately collapsed for a variety of reasons, prominent among them the fact that the projected stadium price tag had crept up to $800 million by fall 2006. It probably didn't help the nerves of Anoka County officials to know that Wilf had expressed interest in putting together some kind of deal in Minneapolis, and reportedly had met with honchos at the Star Tribune, which owns a good hunk of land around the Metrodome site.

Anoka County Commissioner Scott LeDoux sounded a bitter tone in a November 20 press release from the county. "It doesn't benefit Anoka County taxpayers to negotiate against other communities to keep the Vikings in Minnesota," the former marquee boxer was quoted as saying, "or to be used as leverage for a better deal somewhere else."

The Vikings acted genuinely surprised that Anoka County took the stadium off the table, even while acknowledging that they were eyeing Minneapolis for development all along. As early as August 2005, Wilf had let it slip that he was interested in buying the Metrodome and the land outright for major development.

"The Anoka deal is disappointing to us," says Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president for public relations and the team's point man on stadium-related affairs. Still, he says, the Anoka deal offers insight into what Wilf is really seeking: "Our owners are developers who are not intimidated by putting significant dollars into development. And they're also bullish on the Twin Cities in terms of real estate development."

Having said that, Bagley and the team insist now that the "sole focus" for the stadium is the Downtown East neighborhood. Unlike his predecessor, Red McCombs, Wilf has repeatedly said he won't move the team. But there appears to be no real local option right now when the team's lease with the Metrodome expires five years hence, in 2012. If, in fact, downtown Minneapolis is the only option, then Wilf has his work cut out for him. The latest round of stadium games, and the looming legislative session in St. Paul, may be more interesting than anything the team did on the field this season.

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