A billion dollar stadium at 100 percent public cost


Star Tribune sports writer Joe Souhan raised a bit of a ruckus when using the clever turns of phrase and hard-hitting criticism common in sports writing, and desirable in sports writing, when going after a political figure on a political matter, to wit, saying some tough stuff about State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City:

Urdahl is a Republican representative from Grove City, and he did us all a favor by starting a key House panel meeting with that question.

Here’s what the question revealed:

  • Some of our elected officials are often no smarter than the guy who writes in the comments section of an online newspaper, “Your stupid.”
  • The “building playgrounds for billionaires and millionaires” line is as old as Jamie Moyer. It cynically panders to all of us who are not millionaires or billionaires, a safe if cowardly strategy. Urdahl has studied the stadium issue for years, and he comes up with a question a third-grader would ask?
  • There are no major sports teams that are not owned by billionaires, or that do not employ millionaires. Ruling out building a stadium that could benefit a billionaire is like ruling out building roads for all those elitists who own cars.

Since Urdahl voted for the bill, this hasn’t gone over well. It’s been the focus of the reaction, which is a bit of a shame considering that Souhan made some legitimate points, though they got lost as the sports media style crossed over into actual news, Joe Souhan at risk of keeping company with Joe Soucheray, and Souhan is so much smarter he’ll surely find such company painful.

Anyway, to his legitimate point, and to explain the title of this post: if we don’t build a stadium, the Vikings are gone to LA. If the Vikings leave, we will build a stadium to attract another team, but that stadium could be 100% at public expense, and will surely be a lot higher proportion of public expense than any Vikings plan. None of this getting the team to pay half stuff. That may not sound reasonable, or even rational, but history says that it is so.

I understand that our instinct is to say “no, if I didn’t agree to a better deal, I’m sure not going to agree to a worse one. If I balked at paying about 55% for a cheaper stadium, I’m not paying 100% for a more expensive one.” I’m sure that’s what people in Houston said before the Oilers left. I’m sure that’s what people in St. Louis said before the Cardinals left. Apparently, however, once a team leaves, the city gets anxious to get another team, and they do whatever it takes to get it. That means consistently paying full price or close to it for a much more expensive facility that what they had previously refused to build, or even just refurbish an existing facility.

When we lost the North Stars partly for lack of major work on Met Center, we did the same thing. We built a new facility, mostly paid for by the public. We lost the Lakers for unwillingness to build an arena, and few years later, we built the aforementioned Met Center. We still went almost 30 years between NBA franchises and then we were so pleased Target Center was built with private money, except the owners assumed the public would buy the arena, and tried to move the team when we didn’t. Without the intervention of the NBA, we’d have had Target Center sitting there mostly unused, and we did eventually have to buy it. Otherwise we would have lost the Timberwolves and the empty arena wouldn’t have been contributing taxes anyway.

In other words, we’re no different than any other part of the country. It’s clear that if the Vikings leave (my guess is it’s 50-50 for the 2013 season), then we will spend the money on a new football stadium. The cost of stadiums keeps going up so it will cost more than the stadium planned for the Dome site, the recovery of the construction industry will raise construction costs in general, and interest rates can only go up. So as ticked off as Urdahl or anyone else might be about Souhan’s column, that’s why he’s right that turning down this deal means maybe paying three times as much later — a bigger cost combined with a bigger public portion.

By the way, after paying three times as much, we’ll have gone however many years without a team, and then we’ll have — exactly what we have now.

A word to my fellow Minneapolitians: we may look upon the demolition of the Dome as a fixed cost, by which I mean it’s happening no matter what, not just if the plan to build a new stadium on the Dome site comes to fruition. If somehow a plan to build near Target Field or at Arden Hills gets carried out, the Dome won’t be sitting there competing, any more than Met Center stood more than a short time after the North Stars left. If the Vikings leave Minnesota altogether, the Dome wouldn’t need to come down right away, but let’s not fool ourselves about funding. That mostly comes from the Vikings. Yes, the Dome is a busy place, with something going almost every day, but Gophers baseball isn’t bringing in that much money. Neither is amateur baseball, high school soccer, high school football, Rollerdome, long distance running, nor even monster truck rallies. It’s great to have this public facility, but it’s going to take public funding to keep it going. I don’t know how much. Moreover, when at last we’re ready to build a new stadium, then the Dome comes down. If the Dome site isn’t reused, we get a nice big stadium-shaped hole in downtown. I’m missing the upside.

I’m not suggesting the deal before the legislature is perfect. It’s not. Personally, I have to swallow hard to accept the expansion of gambling. If I was king of the stadium deals, or even just someone who could talk Republicans out of their taxophobia, I’d fund the stadium with a tax on tickets, parking, concessions, and anything stadium-connected. That was almost part of the plan but didn’t get through. Alternatively, I’d like to see an upper income surtax, with “upper income” defined as “able to afford the luxury suites that are a big reason the Dome isn’t acceptable anymore.”

I don’t see that happening, but the ticket taxes could happen. After all, this whole painful exercise has been a struggle against the obvious before finally giving in and doing — the obvious. And a ticket tax seems obvious. Stadium opponents have a screamingly fair point that the people using the stadium ought to be paying for it, and it’s not the high school leagues saying the Dome isn’t up to it any more. It’s the Vikings and the NFL saying that, so fine, build a stadium with a bunch more luxury suites, and put a tax on, to state the obvious — luxury suites.

Yes, it’s new tax, but it’s a voluntary tax, like we keep hearing expanded gambling described.