OPINION | Taking the public out of a public park


Sharing public amenities is only slightly less controversial than funding public amenities. The new Vikings stadium adjoins an equally new Minneapolis public park. The Minnesota Vikings and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission retain exclusive use for 80-100 days per year. The park represents a new economic development direction that presents itself as one thing, a park, while behaving as another, an athletic performance venue.

Like most Minnesotans, I don’t pretend to fully understand the new Vikings stadium deal’s intricacies. I only know two things. First, the deal contains many complicated elements, unsurprising given the money involved and the principals’ skill and experience. But, we keep discovering new codicils like the new park’s privileged benefit. If they were fully understood at the time, those project details may very well have derailed the entire Vikings stadium replacement deal. Two, the public is footing a large chunk of the project’s cost. The State’s and the City of Minneapolis’ financial commitments are, combined, greater than the football team owner’s investment.

We recently learned that the new stadium facility will be adjoined by a public park, created from the soon-to-be leveled Star-Tribune building and surface parking lots. Situated between Park and Fifth Avenues and 4th and 5th Streets, the new park is, functionally, an extension of the stadium’s front plaza. That’s by design.

Besides the new park’s existence, which I argue was not widely understood, the real surprise was the public space’s preferential reservation for Vikings and Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission events. This revelation isn’t unexpected but it clearly caught city leaders off guard in a “we agreed to what?” fashion. The new park and its black-out dates remind us that, among the many equals funding a public amenity for mixed public-private use, some equals are more equal than others.

Professional football hasn’t been about just a football game for decades. The game, played at the highest athletic performance level, anchors a host of ancillary entertainment activities. Football competes for your entertainment dollar with movies, dining, theater, baseball, roller derby, the zoo and every other conceivable recreational activity. Even then, football isn’t football alone. In-person attendance facilitates the real money maker, television audiences. 73,000 ticketholders experience the game in person but those numbers pale beside the millions watching on broadcast, cable or streaming.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome yielded a great economic development lesson. A stadium alone is insufficient. Thirty years ago, Vikings owners and public officials hoped that the then-new multi-use facility would draw the central business district’s energy and business six or eight blocks east, filling and improving the space between the Dome and Hennepin Avenue. It didn’t happen. Apart from surface lot parking, stadium economic activity created a single bar, Hubert’s. That’s it.

This happened because the Vikings owners limited their revenue generation horizons to activities within the facility. They wanted fans to only spend money inside the Metrodome, not outside. Any money spent beyond the gates was viewed as revenue lost to owners. Therefore, the earlier owners weren’t interested in surrounding amenities. Essentially, they wanted to prevent game-day tailgating, compelling fans to replace pre-game informal parking lot dining with food purchasing inside the facility. For a new stadium to work, even an entirely privately financed stadium, the old mix had to change. And, that’s what’s happened. As a result, developers aren’t building a football stadium; they’re constructing a neighborhood that also contains a single-purpose sports facility. Neighborhoods need parks.

All parks are not created equal. They serve different needs and different constituencies. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a specialized park for example. By design, it’s a wilderness, created to preserve a non-commercialized, undeveloped outdoors experience. Anyone may access it provided that they have the entry fee and a willingness to lug and paddle gear without machine assistance. In contrast, the pop-top camper crowd can find electrically-wired campsites in every Minnesota county. The new stadium park is an urban creature. It creates green space amidst tar, brick and concrete. It’s not Minnehaha Park. Rather, it’s closer to the public space surrounding the Hennepin County Government Center, better known for public demonstrations than hotdog roasts.

That’s the nut of my concern with the large number of privileged park reservations dates. Urban parks are public space for gathering. All parks are commons, shared natural and cultural resources available to the public. Restricting or removing that benefit strikes a resonant warning chord. As Minnesotans, we have different views about public-private partnerships but don’t build a park just to tell us that it’s only a park sometimes.

Our democracy is predicated on publicly voicing opinion. The first US Constitutional Amendment guarantees our right of assembly. Commandeering and restricting public space carries a deeper, more resonant threat than plowing half a billion public revenue dollars into a football club’s game day venue. I understand that parks are economic development tools and amenities. Using public park space to improve the Vikings stadium’s chance of success is smart. But, public parks are also public space assets essential to our democracy. Don’t mess with democracy; it’s more important than football.