Saturday, February 18, 2012

Game of stadium debate not playing with a full deck

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The card game that is the debate about whether, when, where, and how to pay for a new football stadium for use by the Minnesota Vikings is being played without a full deck.

Through the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, an entity created by its legislature, Minnesota owns a professional football stadium located on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. It bears the name of Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Until the recent expiration of naming rights, its playing field has been known in recent years as the Mall of America Field. 

The Metrodome opened for business in 1982, after being built at a cost of $68 million, a sum with the 2011 buying power of $158.5 million. Its construction cost came in $2 million under budget. The place seats 64,000 people for football, and sports a new roof and playing field surface that are both less than a year old. 

The Metrodome is located at the nexus of major freeways, the Hiawatha light rail transit line from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America in Bloomington (via the airport), and a soon-to-be-completed Central Corridor rail line connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul (constructed at a cost of $900 million).

Why, then, is there such strenuous debate about the need to build a wholly new stadium for $900 million to $1.2 billion?

If the polls are correct, 75% of the people say we don't need to build if even one red cent of public money is used for the financing. Others proclaim the present amenity "a piece of crap" that requires its decommission (often while preferring to ignore the Vikings' won-loss record). More saliently, we are told that the present facility does not generate sufficient revenue and, presumably, profit for the Vikings entity.

Much of our discourse turns on antipathy for using public funds that will subsidize for-profit enterprises. Where the stadium is concerned, this means opposing "the further enrichment" of Zygi Wilf, the billionaire owner of the Vikings. As a firmly entrenched member of the 99%, I get that, especially after the dude displayed such a tin ear for public sentiment with his recent $19 million purchase of a Manhattan apartment. (I would love to have me one of those!)

However, we ought to dismount from our self-righteous high horses. Minnesota and U.S. taxpayers provide corporate welfare every day, along side every program of people welfare. There is no unanimity for any of it. Besides, when it comes to stadiums, and specifically the Vikings, we have done it before. 

We also will do it again. Regardless of its final composition, the bonding bills crafted by Minnesota's legislature regularly invest in expensive public projects that serve the interests of a variety of users. Sometimes these are called regional airports. They also can be called civic or convention centers, places that are used regularly by churches, orchestras, and the "filthy rich" who need a place to display and market their boats, motorcycles, automobiles, and landscaping and homebuilding products and services, to name a few.

Despite polling results and the world views of many elected leaders to the contrary, all of us are in this together. The answer to the perennial whine of "Why should I pay for this, that, and the other?" is "Because that's what you do in a civil society" – a concept codified in the preamble to the Constitution about providing for the common welfare that carries a broad definition.

Any public investment, and stadium, must serve a range of users in addition to the eight days a year claimed by the Vikings, just as the Metrodome currently serves college baseball, runners, roller skaters, and a myriad of others. Any investment also must serve the causes of cost efficiency and getting the best return for each buck.

Cards have gone missing in the debate deck when it comes to explaining how a new stadium will generate substantially more revenue than the one we have:

What level of revenue are we talking about? How much revenue is generated by Vikings activity now and how much of it flows to the team?

How much additional revenue must the Vikings have in order to remain viable and sustainable? How much and how fast will the need for additional revenue grow over what period of time? There must be numbers somewhere by which the team, the National Football League, and others measure whether a particular stadium proposal is a good or bad deal. 

How does spending a billion dollars generate that level of revenue over time? Specifically, what increment of building expense will generate what amount of additional revenue? Any entity, particularly one for-profit, should know this.
I understand that the Metrodome concourses could be more spacious and allow for greater freedom of movement, thus "enhancing my fan experience." However, I go to see the live performance of a game, not to hang out on the concourse. How, specifically, do wider concourses generate more revenue?

More and improved restrooms may not generate revenue, but most could agree there would be value in enhancing the fan experience in this realm. At peak times, lines form up at the cattle trough pissers in the current men's facilities; a guy can only imagine how the women are coping.
Similarly, while enhancements to team clubhouses may not generate revenue, they might provide enough boost in team morale to improve on-field performance. Are the Metrodome's structural impediments so numerous, and the architects' imaginations so limited, that clubhouses can not be upgraded substantially, particularly with the baseball people having vacated the premises?

What level of expense is required to fix whatever is wrong with the current concessions set-up? Do we need more concession counters? Greater food variety? Sit-down restaurants? Higher prices? Aside from the can-do imagination about how to do it, what is missing from the current Metrodome?

Most commonly, I read of the need for more, better luxury suites. On occasion, I have been seated in the boxes in the vicinity of Section 211; in their present state, I would not pay $10 premium for them let alone $10,000 or $100,000. Still, how many boxes and/or suites does the Metrodome have now? What revenue do they generate? How many suites are needed to generate what quantity of revenue? Again, aside from the missing imagination, what would it cost to upgrade and add to what exists?

Beyond these, what other real revenue generators exist that require an investment of $1 billion?

We do not need to accomodate tailgating at any of the proposed stadium sites in Arden Hills and Minneapolis. I recall tailgating at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington when post-game parking lots became opportunities to dodge vehicles driven by drunks before they hit the highways headed for home.

A revenue generator I might support would have the Sports Facilities Commission buy or build a parking ramp or two, proximate to the Metrodome. Lease them to the Vikings for zero rent. Allow the team to operate them year-round and keep the proceeds. For 30 years, there has been no significant development on most real estate in that area anyway.

My bottom line on all of this:

• The Minnesota Vikings represent a real value to significant numbers of Minnesota's people and the collective we should make a renewed investment in their facility;

• If there is evidence on the public record about how spending a billion dollars for an all new facility at any location will solve whatever ails the team financially, its dissemination has not penetrated the public's consciousness;

• The Metrodome needs enhancements, something the Vikings owners have rejected out-of-hand in the past; 

• The State of Minnesota should offer up to $200 million of public money to finance enhancements; 

• If the Vikings believe an additional $400 million would be needed, the team already has committed that amount of money to serve its expressed need for increased revenues;

• A valid case has not been made for why Minnesota should expand gambling in any form to provide stadium financing – such proposals support the fiction that they carry no costs;

• All of Minnesota has an interest in the presence of the Vikings in this market, and the entire state should put up the full $200 million by incorporating the project into the 2012 bonding bill being considered by the legislature.

If none of that is good enough for the Vikings and the NFL, then they are free to make arrangements elsewhere. 

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