Blaine, Anoka County officials reflect on deal
with team that went south in 2006
by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Some Anoka County and city of Blaine officials look back on the abandoned Anoka County/Vikings’ stadium proposal with a degree of satisfaction.
“I think we got so much good PR out of it,” said Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan, who spent several years trying to get a Vikings’ football stadium in his city. “I never lost respect for him (team owner Zygi Wilf).”
Anoka County spent about $1 million in its stadium efforts, and Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, a former county board chair, views it as money well spent.
It showed Anoka County could do good things, Erhart recently told the ECM Editorial Board.
Although the current media stadium blitz obscures the past, the evolving Vikings’ stadium story has a lineage.
Wilf’s $1 billion “Northern Lights at Blaine” proposal, presented to the Blaine City Council in February of 2006, is an ancestor of sorts to the team’s current Arden Hills’ stadium plan.
Vikings’ officials heralded the creation of retail shops, housing, a hotel, medical facilities, even a Las Vegas-style light show in “Northern Lights.”
The vision anticipated $280 million from an Anoka County sales tax, and $115 million from the state.
The 68,500-seat stadium, equipped with retractable roof, was proposed for land just off I-35W.
The pursuit of a larger entertainment experience is what binds Wilf to the current Ramsey County/Vilkings’ stadium Arden Hills proposal, Ryan believes. “He (Wilf) wants something new. He wants to build a new tradition,” Ryan said.
Headwinds were strong against the Anoka County/Vikings’ proposal at the State Capitol in 2006, as the Minnesota Twins had been methodically appealing for a new ballpark and the University of Minnesota was also looking for a stadium.
“In all honesty we can’t handle three stadiums in one year,” said former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum at the time, adding that the combined political “weight” could crash all three proposals.
And even five years ago, lawmakers were weary of stadiums.
Former state Sen. Don Betzold, who carried the Anoka County/ Vikings’ stadium legislation, leaned back in his office chair after one legislative victory in May of 2006 and sounded less than exultant.
“I was weary of it (the stadium debate) years ago,” said Betzold, a Democrat from Fridley.
“Quit talking about it. Make a decision. Move on,” he urged.
Ryan believes the Anoka County/Vikings’ stadium proposal suffered from lack of gubernatorial support — something Erhart and others mention.
“Governor Pawlenty walked out after he drug us into it,” said Ryan, now a political independent. “Zygi got so tired of it,” said Ryan of the perceived lack of support.
That’s why the team dropped the proposal, Ryan explained. “I know it was,” he said.
Others thought it was close.
Anoka County Commissioner Andy Westerberg, a former Republican House member, was involved in the stadium issue. He looks back on the 2006 legislative session, the session that produced the Twins’ ballpark and Gopher stadium, as one holding promise.
“We simply ran out of time,” Westerberg said.
But Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, views the Anoka County/Vikings’ stadium proposal as troubled from the start. Abeler, too, believes Pawlenty wasn’t interested.
Beyond this, Abeler — who still has Zygi Wilf’s phone number on his cell phone — sensed that Wilf himself was not fully committed.
“I really felt he never bought it,” said Abeler.
Just when and why did the Vikings give up on Anoka County?
Betzold doesn’t know the exact reason, but recalls Vikings’ stadium point man Lester Bagley telling him late in the fall of 2006 the team had shifted its focus to downtown Minneapolis.
Vikings’ Director of Corporate Communications Jeff Anderson responded to a request for comment from Bagley.
” In 2006, we had a strong two-way partnership with Anoka County but could not get the state to engage in a stadium solution. (During the 2006 legislative session, both the Twins and the University of Minnesota passed stadium legislation and the Vikings were asked to wait). The site also had unaccounted additional infrastructure costs that totaled over $200 million, primarily the widening of 35W North to three lanes, as well as some wetlands that raised concerns. In the end, issues with the site, coupled with the inability to gain state participation, prohibited a stadium solution at that location,” Anderson said.
Erhart recalls Wilf calling the night before the Legislature adjourned two years ago and telling him the team would not go forward with Anoka County. “‘I can’t do this.’” Erhart recalls Wilf saying.
His brother and other family members did not want to go ahead, Erhart recalls Wilf explaining.
“He would have been King of the Hill,” said Erhart, arguing Wilf could have had a huge entertainment complex in Blaine with Running Aces Harness Park nearby in Columbus.
Westerberg and Betzold were surprised by the timing of the current Ramsey County/Vikings’ Arden Hills stadium proposal.
Ramsey County officials and Wilf presented their proposal in May, short days before the end of the legislative session.
Timing has never been a team strength on or off the field, Westerberg said. “The Vikings have never been good at managing the play clock,” he quipped.
Blaine officials believe a number of important elements have been ignored in the current stadium debate.
For one thing, market research suggested that keeping a new stadium filled with events isn’t as easy as might be expected, Ryan said. Local competition is keen.
And there’s the cost of additional police protection for the host city, and infrastructure costs.
“Nobody wants to talk about those things,” said Ryan.
While Blaine Council Member Wes Hovland believes Wilf negotiated with city officials in good faith, he assumes Wilf had a Plan B from the start. “We did the same thing,” Hovland said.
Hovland, like Ryan, views stadiums as bringing benefits as well as pressures. “For every positive thing for a stadium, there’s a negative,” he said.
The Blaine City Council recently endorsed the Arden Hills’ stadium proposal.
Hovland views the proposal as offering the city an economic boost with the additional benefit of the project costs going elsewhere. “Exactly,” he said.
Building a new stadium can spark the economy, Hovland said.
Abeler thought the Anoka County/Vikings’ stadium proposal was a good one — the best at the time — but views the Arden Hills’ proposal as better. “I think we’ll do something,” Abeler said of lawmakers taking action on the stadium this coming session.