By Don Davis and Danielle Nordine
The Minnesota Vikings and their fans have something to cheer about.
And they did cheer and sang “Skol, Vikings,” the team’s fight song, during a Thursday evening news conference celebrating legislative passage earlier in the day of a plan to build a new stadium for the Vikings and other events. It is to be open in 2016.
Fans must wait for two final steps to be completed: a governor’s signature (a certainty next week) and the Minneapolis City Council’s approval (probable, but not guaranteed).
Smiles were as wide as ever seen in the Capitol as state leaders joined Vikings owners and Minneapolis officials in celebrating the stadium action.
“Wow,” House stadium bill author Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said. “This is a great day for the state of Minnesota.”
Lanning has worked seven years to get a stadium built, a dream of the Vikings for more than a decade. He and other supporters went on a roller coast ride in the past year as the plan moved ahead, and backwards at times, in fits and starts.
“We are going to have first-class stadium we can all be very, very proud of,” bill author Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said.
Senators approved the stadium 36-30 Thursday afternoon.
The new stadium will make Minnesota “a better place to live,” Lanning said shortly after the House approved his stadium bill 71-60 early Thursday.
But even after the votes, Vikings fans said they will wait until the process is finished to really celebrate.
“We are Vikings fans, we are prepared for the worst,” fan Larry Spooner said, making sure not to be overconfident until all loose ends are tied up.
The Vikings vote was the last major action lawmakers took before adjourning for the year. They had planned to leave by April 30 but stayed to see certain issues through, such as the stadium and a tax-relief bill that could face a governor’s veto.
The House adjourned before 4 a.m. Thursday, shortly after passing the stadium plan, and the Senate followed suit just after 2 p.m.
Lawmakers will return at noon on Jan. 8, 2013.
The stadium issue was the most publicized of the year. The proposal did not advance until last month, after Commissioner Roger Goodell of the National Football League visited state leaders and left the message that the team could move if there is no new stadium.
“We were all on the same page after that,” Rosen said.
Owner Zygi Wilf told reporters at the Thursday news conference-turned-Vikings rally that fans made the difference in passing the controversial plan.
“I want to really thank the fans, throughout the state and throughout the country,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he received 987 emails on the issue one night. Other lawmakers talk about similar experiences, with a vast majority of comments supporting a new stadium to replace the Metrodome, which the Vikings say no longer allows them to make enough money.
Getting the new stadium “ensures the team stays where it belongs, in Minnesota,” Wilf said to cheering fans decked out in Vikings purple garb in the back of the governor’s ornate reception room.
His brother, Mark, called it a “very historic day for the state of Minnesota and this franchise.” He promised the new downtown Minneapolis stadium will provide fans “a vibrant game-day experience.”
The next year will be spent designing the stadium, to sit on the current Metrodome site. Construction could take 20 to 22 months, allowing the stadium to open in 2016.
Efforts to build a stadium got serious a year ago, but a big state budget deficit pushed the issue to this year. The bill failed in one House committee and stalled for weeks in a Senate committee before it began to move in the session’s waning days.
“This is a classic example of the need for patience and perseverance,” Lanning said.
Financing the project was a key point of debate. Using charitable gambling taxes to finance the stadium was one of the most controversial parts of the plan. Some members wanted other funding sources such as user fees.
Lawmakers rejected attempts to switch to user fee funding.
In a conference committee that approved a compromise between previously passed House and Senate versions of the stadium plan, Vikings fans thanked legislators for keeping the team in Minnesota for another generation. Many in full Vikings garb were in the House and Senate galleries and applauded when the vote was tallied.
Stadium backers worked long hours in recent days as they tried to smooth over differences between the House and Senate and between legislators and the Vikings.
“There was a lot of give and take, a lot of compromise,” Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley said.
Some were upset about the process, as much of the discussion on the final version of the plan was conducted in private.
Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said there was not enough opportunity for public and other lawmakers’ input.
“Everything was done as best could be done with the timeframe we had here,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who was part of the joint conference committee.
“We did nothing wrong,” Rosen said.
The Vikings will pay $477 million toward construction costs for the $975 million stadium, $50 million more than they wanted.
Most of the state’s portion of stadium costs will come from taxes collected on new charitable gambling profits after electronic devices are added to pulltab and bingo games. The state would pay $348 million and Minneapolis $150 million.
The compromise bill also allows tipboards, a gambling game based on scores but not the outcomes of sports contests.
All the details were designed for one major outcome: keep the Vikings in Minnesota. That appears to have worked.
“We’re here to stay, guys,” Wilf said.
Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said a stadium will not strengthen Minnesota. The state needs, instead, to lower taxes and invest in schools, she said.
“Minnesota taxpayers will be subsidizing fans,” Franson said.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said the government should not get involved in the business of professional sports.
“It saddens me to think that our citizens believe this is a wise expenditure of taxpayer money,” Newman said.
“Everybody wants a yes vote, everybody wants a stadium. But at what cost?” Howe said. He voted against the plan.
“I believe that it is wrong that government can use its force to force one group of people to pay for another group’s entertainment,” Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, said.
“This is an incredible piece of bi-partisan work,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.
“If you don’t buy a pulltab or you don’t go to a game, you don’t pay a dime,” Bakk said. “You got a good deal, Minnesotans.”
Bakk said he always knew the stadium would be approved.
“Don’t under estimate the power of business and labor in the state when they pull on the same oar,” Bakk said.