ON AUGUST 16, two weeks after the collapse of the I-35W bridge, a labor leader, a former Republican operative, a retired state senator, and one of Minnesota’s most influential lobbyists gathered in a conference room about eight blocks from the steel-and-cement ruins clogging the Mississippi River. They met to discuss their next move on a pressing infrastructure issue.
No, not that infrastructure issue. It was the monthly meeting of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, whose members were convening to talk about what had come to be known as “the Vikings problem.” With a $1 billion vision of a new stadium dancing in team owner Zygi Wilf’s head and his team’s lease at the Dome set to expire after the 2011 season, the seven commission members had to figure out how could they even whisper about a new stadium—one that could cost up to three times as much as a new bridge—while recovery efforts were still ongoing. Plans to kick off a “listening tour” to rally statewide support for a new stadium were put on hold, while a proposal to examine a “reconstructed” Metrodome—a massive renovation, in other words—was also put on the back burner. “We, in a sense, are in limbo,” said commissioner Loanne Thrane, the former chief of staff to former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz.
This was appropriate. Limbo is good. Back burner is fitting. For if there is anything good that can come of the crumbling bridge, it could be instilling a sense of perspective about one of the Twin Cities’ most conspicuous public-policy issues: the construction of area sports palaces. Local stadium and arena boosters need a slap upside the head—and political leaders need some guidance—when it comes to what I like to call our Sports Edifice Complex, our tendency to build ever more expensive, and often unnecessary, facilities. A moment of reflection following the bridge collapse, in fact, may offer our only chance to pull back and think about how we can tackle this addiction. We just need a little help. So here, drawing on some inspiration from other recovery programs, is a plan to cure our craving for publicly financed stadiums. We won’t even need 12 steps.
Step 1: In order to shed our sense of powerlessness over our addiction, and to move toward sober, socially responsible action, we have to admit we have a problem: The Twin Cities metro area’s landscape when it comes to publicly-funded sports and entertainment venues—is out of whack.
American City Business Journals regularly analyzes the capacity of metro areas to support sports franchises, and the Twin Cities are always considered overextended; there’s not enough disposable income in the region to adequately support four major league teams and a Big Ten sports program. We need to be honest about this.
Step 2: Let’s solve our biggest, if least noticed, problem first: the Target Center vs. Xcel Energy Center death dance. We now have two, 18,000-seat multipurpose arenas 10 miles apart; both are owned by their respective cities and carry substantial debt. They compete with each other for concerts, a dynamic that benefits performers, promoters, and agents—but not taxpayers.
The 17-year-old Target Center now sustains operating losses of roughly $2 million per year, a situation that has caused Minneapolis finance director Patrick Born to look at the arena as a proverbial canary in the coal mine. “All the other facilities in town should look at us and see what’s going to happen,” he says, referring to the annual public subsidy from the city of Minneapolis’s coffers required to keep the arena solvent.
We need to end the madness—and stop flushing money down the drain—by merging the management and operations of the two arenas.
Step 3: We need to tackle the other big redundancy, too: football stadiums. The prospect exists that a new Vikings stadium will be built one long punt away from the new Gophers stadium, currently under construction on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus. That means we could have two structures hosting fewer than 20 football games a year with a combined price tag of $1.3 billion, most of which would be paid for with public dollars.
Can’t we revisit the idea of having the Vikings and Gophers share the new TCF Bank Stadium? If not, we surely need to reduce the cost of the Vikings’ new sandbox.
Step 4: We should establish a power greater than ourselves to restore sanity to the situation. I would call that power the Minnesota Sports and Public Assembly Facilities Agency, or MSPAFA.
It doesn’t exist yet, but it should. It would be a regional—or even statewide—oversight board charged with implementing a unified plan to oversee the future construction, funding, maintenance, and capital improvements of all metro sports facilities, from a new NFL stadium in Minneapolis to youth hockey rinks in Farmington.
Step 5: We need to reorganize. Right now, the existing Sports Facilities Commission owns and operates the Metrodome. The U’s football stadium will be run by the university’s Board of Regents and funded by the state. The Target Center is owned by the City of Minneapolis. Xcel Energy Center is run by the St. Paul Arena Company (though it’s owned by the City of St. Paul). The new Twins stadium will be owned by the new Minnesota Ballpark Authority and funded by the team and Hennepin County.
It’s freakin’ anarchy out there. In order to save money, time, and effort, everything should be placed under the watchful eyes of the new MSPAFA.
Step 6: Let’s bring the Metropolitan Council—the Twin Cities planning agency—into the mix. Besides its major areas of responsibility (regional mass transit and wastewater management), it already oversees the planning, acquisition, and funding of the regional parks and trails system. Sports facilities would be a natural fit for the Met Council, though chairman Peter Bell isn’t exactly thrilled by the idea. “We’ve got enough to do,” he says, arguing that stadium issues often get “sorted out by the market.”
I would beg to differ. Every major sports facility in this town built since construction started on the Met, in 1955, has received public subsidies, as have most stadiums nationwide. It’s not about “the market.” It’s about managing public resources, sustaining and refurbishing what we’ve got, and planning for the next phase.
Step 8: If the Met Council won’t step in, the Legislature should examine the feasibility of an ongoing funding stream to pay down public debt on arenas and stadiums. There are myriad options: It could piggyback fees on an arts and environmental sales-tax increase; or there could be an ongoing sports-user fee that funds facilities into the future. We need to do something to maintain and retool our facilities so they don’t become obsolete after just a few decades.
Step 9: In the wake of the 35W tragedy, an obvious question arises: Why worry about stadiums and arenas when we can’t afford safe bridges?
Because we’ve got a serious public-policy problem with these sports facilities, and hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, most of which is public money. And it’s possible to have solid roads and bridges and mass transit even as we create a new socially responsible, cost-effective model for planning and funding stadiums and arenas.
Step 10: We need to use 2008 wisely. Put consideration of a Vikings stadium on hold. Develop a more comprehensive solution. Everything about sports facilities must be on the table. The public will be best served if serious people take a creative look at saving us from more disasters in our sports-infrastructure system. We know the problem. Now it’s time to seek the cure.
Jay Weiner lives and writes in St. Paul. He has covered local stadium issues for more than a decade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.