Stop That Train

Neighborhood activist Connie Sullivan thinks the NFL and the Vikings are running an end-around in their stadium push

Neighborhood activist Connie Sullivan thinks the NFL and the Vikings are running an end-around in their stadium push

Last May, as state lawmakers hammered out a proposal for the construction of a new ballpark for the Minnesota Twins, the Minnesota Vikings were quick to play the role of frustrated bridesmaid. Complaining that the team's stadium needs were being neglected, owner Red McCombs even let slip that he was thinking about selling or moving the franchise. That tactic didn't elicit much sympathy from either the public or the politicians. But it did play off the conventional wisdom of the day: the much-ballyhooed Twins ballpark drive was on a fast track, and the Vikings (along with the University of Minnesota, their presumptive partner in a new stadium venture) would simply have to stand in line and wait.

What a difference four months makes.

The Twins deal is now dead in the water, a victim of ill-conceived political maneuvering that effectively shut out Minneapolis as a potential site. Meanwhile, planning for a joint Vikings Gophers stadium is proceeding at a breakneck speed--thanks, ironically, to what seemed to be a mere footnote to last spring's Twins ballpark legislation.

Under the Twins bill, the university was given a half-million dollars and a mandate to do two things: come up with a preliminary design for the stadium (to be built on a parking lot east of Mariucci Arena) and reach an understanding with the Vikings on how costs and revenues would be divided. The caveat? The deal has to be struck by December 1, 2002.

That alarms critics, who say a headlong rush to forge an alliance between the U and the Vikings will come at the expense of the neighborhoods most likely affected by the construction of the stadium. "It just seems egregious that this will be the largest building ever constructed on the university campus, and they've only got six months to put it together, and it just came out of this little addendum on the Twins bill," says Suzie Overlie, a coordinator with the Southeast Como Neighborhood Improvement Association.

"This is a very aggressive timeline," concedes Lester Bagley, the Vikings' chief lobbyist on the stadium issue. But, Bagley contends, it is necessary to take advantage of an NFL program that would contribute as much as $50 million to the stadium's projected $440 million construction cost. (That figure does not take into account traffic and other infrastructure improvements a stadium would require; no such estimates are currently available.) According to Bagley, the NFL matching fund program is slated to expire at the owners' meeting next March, hence the time pressure. "Most every NFL city has solved their stadium problem, except for this one. So there's not a lot of interest in renewing the program."

Critics are skeptical about such explanations, and worried about the apparent haste with which the university is moving toward a partnership with the Vikings. "I think the NFL set an early deadline just so it would be rushed through, and now this thing is chugging along like a train. I really resent it," complains Connie Sullivan, a board member of the Southeast Como Neighborhood Improvement Association.

In Sullivan's view, there are plenty of reasons to oppose the addition of an NFL-style stadium to the campus, including problems with traffic, parking, and finances. But those problems are unlikely to be addressed adequately in such a short time. And, she says, she is not impressed by the university's efforts to gather input from neighborhoods like hers that will be affected by a new stadium. "They know this will have a negative impact," she says. "I just think it's pro forma, cynical, and meaningless."

Bill Dane, a past president of the Como association, puts it more gently. "I think the process is on such a fast track that it's forcing people to make decisions with a lot less information than they should have," says Dane. At a September 10 meeting between neighborhood representatives and officials from the U and the Vikings, Dane recalls, one U planner expressed excitement at "this first of its kind" public-private partnership. "I had to ask, 'Might there not be a reason this isn't being done anywhere else?'"

For Dane, it all serves as an unpleasant reminder of another conflict between his neighborhood and the U: the controversial renovation and expansion of the university steam plant in the mid-Nineties. "Before there was adequate study of the alternatives, contracts got signed. The bottom line was that we could talk about it and complain all we wanted, but the U was locked in. I think that's the concern people have about the stadium."

Frank Berman, a member of the U's Board of Regents, says neighborhood representatives shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the stadium deal is anything close to a fait accompli. "I certainly have not made up my mind. I've got some significant concerns because there can be missteps on all sorts of issues," Berman says.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn agrees. Kahn, who was on the losing side of the steam plant battle, says she understands why some people might see the stadium as an echo of that episode. But, she opines, much of the apparent momentum behind a Vikings-Gophers stadium may be illusory. Even if the stadium has unequivocal backing at the U, the legislature will likely prove a different story. "I can't imagine this being done without some kind of public funding. With all the financial problems we have before us, this is pretty low on the list of priorities," Kahn says.

Of course, if communities made decisions about stadium building based strictly on sound public-policy criteria, few if any new stadiums would get built. The trick for stadium boosters is to shift the terms of debate.

And that, notes Vikings lobbyist Bagley, is beginning to happen here.

"I think there has been progress on the notion that this is about market economics. If this community wants to have the NFL, if we want to be a major league city, we have to solve the problem," Bagley says. "It's not about good or bad public policy."