Governor backs Vikes' Arden Hills plan

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday he's ready to throw his political weight behind a new, publicly subsidized football stadium that would be built on a site preferred by the Minnesota Vikings.

Following three days of meetings with various stadium stakeholders, including Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, Dayton said that within the next three weeks he plans to unveil a detailed proposal tied to the Ramsey County site -- including how to raise the state's $300 million share toward a project estimated at $1.1 billion. The Democratic governor did not reveal if he has a preference between several financing options already floated including new state sales taxes, fees on game-related activities, tax revenue from an expansion of gambling, or something else.

Once a proposal is in hand, Dayton said he'd call a special legislative session before the end of November, allowing lawmakers to vote on the plan. But he still must convince skeptical Republican legislative leaders, who couldn't block him from calling a session but whose support would be crucial to passing any stadium bill.

"I think there's a way to keep the Vikings in Minnesota without the extraordinary step of a special session," said House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. He didn't say what those steps could be, but noted that special sessions have typically been reserved for responding to emergencies like natural disasters.

"The state's hurting right now," Dean said. "People are really anxious about the economy and their jobs, and it's a different place than it was a few years ago when the Twins moved their stadium legislation through."

The Vikings have sought a replacement for the Metrodome for nearly a decade, calling the Minneapolis venue no longer sufficiently profitable. The team's lease there runs out at the end of the current season, and earlier this week an NFL vice president in town to meet with Dayton did nothing to squelch speculation that failure by state leaders to fund a replacement could result in another city grabbing away the franchise.

The Arden Hills site, a former Army ammunition dump, is favored by Wilf and by his allies on the Ramsey County Board who see it as a good way to clean up an environmentally troubled site and bolster economic growth in surrounding areas. Their plan, likely to serve as the main basis for whatever Dayton proposes, has the county paying $350 million raised by a half-cent sales tax increase; the state paying $300 million from a yet to be determined source; and the Vikings paying $407 million plus any cost overruns.

Some political and business leaders in Minneapolis have angled to keep the team there, at one of three possible sites in the downtown area. Dayton has been careful not to dismiss Minneapolis as a prospect if the suburban site is somehow disqualified.

"I'd want a stadium to be in Minneapolis rather than Los Angeles," he said, in reference to business groups there that are aggressively seeking a new NFL franchise, adding that the Vikings have made their large financial contribution contingent on building in Arden Hills.

"The only site the Vikings are willing to consider, and put four to five hundred million dollars into, is Arden Hills," Dayton said.

Dayton met with Wilf for about 45 minutes Wednesday afternoon. Wilf left without taking media questions, but the team later released a joint statement calling the meeting "constructive," saying both were "appreciative" of Dayton's efforts.

"The Vikings are committed to doing whatever we can ... to finalize a viable stadium proposal and begin construction as quickly as possible," the statement said.

Dayton also met with the Ramsey County Board members who have pushed the Arden Hills deal, and several executives from the Minneapolis-based real estate developers Alatus LLC.

Alatus is seeking state authorization to build and operate a new casino in the financially troubled downtown Minneapolis shopping center known as "Block E," and state lawmakers who back that plan have suggested that new tax revenue it generates is one possible way to fund the state's share of the football stadium construction.

Another proposed gambling expansion also has been floated to help pay for the stadium: the longtime request by owners of two horse-racing tracks on the outskirts of the Twin Cities metropolitan area for state authorization to add slot machines.

How the state raises its proposed $300 million share is one of the major remaining stumbling blocks for stadium backers. Opposition to more gambling is strong in the Legislature, and even a stadium backer like state Sen. John Harrington said he'd have trouble supporting it.

"It really has a negative impact on a lot of people," said Harrington, a St. Paul Democrat. Proposals to expand gambling are certain to draw vehement opposition from both the state's American Indian tribes and social conservative advocacy groups.

Harrington said he'd prefer a suggestion first floated by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a small hike in the state sales tax on liquor sales. But Republican legislative leaders have already drawn a firm line against any state tax increases to help the Vikings.

One more stumbling block is strong opposition among some in Ramsey County to the proposed half-cent county sales tax increase to pay for the local portion of the project. A group of residents is already organizing a petition drive to force a public referendum if the tax is raised, though state lawmakers could overrule a public vote. There, too, stadium backers could meet resistance from Republican legislative leaders, with both House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch on record favoring a referendum.