Tribes at odds over Vikings’ stadium casino proposal
bu T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Competing tribal gaming interests surfaced during a Minnesota Senate hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 6 devoted to examining Vikings’ stadium financial issues.
White Earth Tribal officials appeared before the joint Senate committee, offering to build a casino at the Arden Hills Vikings’ stadium site, should that site advance.
White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor sold the proposal to lawmakers as offering a financial mechanism to fund a stadium.
“White Earth has the ability to take up either the state’s or county’s share (of funding a new Vikings’ stadium),” Vizenor said.
The tribe is approved for up to a $700 million loan, Vizenor explained, and would finance 100 percent of casino development and construction.
She proposed a casino with 150 tables and 4,000 slot machines.
Such a proposal would preserve the exclusivity of Native American gaming in Minnesota, said Vizenor. Beyond this, about half of White Earth tribe’s 20,000 enrolled members live in the metro, she said.
“We are here to provide a solution,” Vizenor said.
But Vizenor’s proposal did not find favor with a Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe official, Mel Towle, general manager of Grand Casino Hinckley.
“I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” Towle said.
Towle, both in testimony before the committee and in comments afterward, argued that gambling expansion would only serve to reverse the beneficial job-creation impact tribal gaming has produced in Greater Minnesota.
Indeed, the Indian gaming compacts were originally struck between the state and the state’s Native American tribes with the idea of creating jobs on the reservations, he explained.
Stephan Hallan, a Pine County commissioner, testified to the importance of Grand Casino Hinckley to the county in terms of property tax revenues.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has a second casino in Mille Lacs.
White Earth has the Shooting Star Casino at Mahnomen.
But many other gaming interests were heard.
Advocates of placing slot machines at Running Aces Harness Park in the City of Columbus and Canterbury Park in Shakopee — racino — also made a sales pitch.
“We are not the crime capital of the state,” quipped Sen. Claire Robing, R-Jordan, of a having a strong gambling presence in her community.
Former Hennepin County Commissioner John Derus, who serves on the Running Aces board of directors, said having a racino at the harness park would mean doubling the number of jobs.
“We kind of feel like the elephant in the living room,” he said.
People need to walk around the racino issue, Derus said.
Other gambling interests making a pitch included downtown Minneapolis Block E supporters, who propose a casino for the block off Hennepin Avenue.
“We believe it’s time to do something bold for Minnesota,” said Block E developer Bob Lux. Lux heralded the proposal as involving $450 million in private investment, drawing millions of additional visitors to downtown Minneapolis, and offering 2,500 permanent jobs.
Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson said fairly strong support exists on the city council for the Block E proposal.
Other gambling interests appeared.
In their appearance before the joint committee, Vikings’ stadium front man Lester Bagley said team officials met with Minneapolis city officials as suggested by Senate Tax Committee Chairwoman Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, at last week’s stadium committee hearing.
Bagley depicted the meeting as raising a number of questions not at play at Arden Hills, the Vikings’ choice stadium site.
Vikings officials heralded the team’s proposed contribution towards the Arden Hills’ stadium venture as the third highest in National Football League history — that includes a payment of up $20 million a year in operating costs, Bagley said.
But Ortman pushed for more details concerning the team’s contribution.
Vikings officials said a number of stadium-generated revenue sources would be tapped in financing the team’s share of Arden Hills’ stadium costs.
These would include expected team revenue gained from ticket sales, parking, concessions and stadium naming rights.
Additionally, the NFL could loan the team money.
Ortman wanted more financial details from the team.
If the stadium advocates are talking about a quick response from state officials, the Vikings, too, needed to act quickly in presenting details, Ortman explained.
Bagley, in answer to a senator’s question about the chance of the team leaving Minnesota, said the team had been contacted by several communities expressing interest in the Vikings.
“There is no time line,” Bagley said later when asked if the team had a certain date it wanted the stadium issue resolved or it would look elsewhere.
Bagley said that when contacted by other communities, no negotiations took place.
The team is focused on Minnesota stadium solution, Bagley told the committee.
But Ted Mondale, chair of the Metropolitan Sports Facility Commission, suggested the Vikings would not be willing to go on indefinitely without a stadium solution. “Sooner or later they will leave,” he said.
In other events during the afternoon-long committee hearing, Ramsey County officials gave no set solution to how the county would fund its portion of the Arden Hills’ stadium proposal. The county-wide sales tax increase proposal has been scuttled by lawmakers.
County officials suggested local beverage or hospitality taxes as substitutes.
A number of individuals spoke in opposition to the idea of using Legacy Amendment dollars — sales tax-driven funding state voters approved several years ago — to finance a stadium.
These opponents included Tom Hanson, a former finance commissioner for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
A Senate fiscal expert gave a quick rundown of the revenue potentials for a number of money-generating proposals often suggested as stadium funding sources.
Electronic pull-tabs, based on about 20 percent reduction in paper pull-tabs, is estimated to garner $72 million a year; a merchant tax on all professional sports memorabilia is estimated to bring in about $9 million a year — $2.9 million a year if applied only to NFL merchandise.
A five percent surcharge on the income of Vikings’ football players is estimated to capture $7 million a year. A ticket surcharge for all professional sports tickets is estimated to capture a little over $2 million annually — $450,000 a year for Vikings’ tickets alone.
A box seat surcharge, which includes college sports’ box seats, is estimated to capture a little under $3 million a year.