Vikings’ stadium deal isn’t supposed to make sense

Tom West - West Words

West Words by Tom West

Almost 30 years ago, I changed jobs and put the first house that I had ever owned up for sale. Unfortunately, interest rates at the time were around 12 percent and nobody was buying.

The house sat for 33 months. During that time I learned that I was not cut out to be a landlord. I also learned some critical economic facts that many people have forgotten since then — like a house is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

But eventually, somebody came along and wanted to buy it. The offer, of course, was low ball — so low, in fact, that when the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at our house and I went to the closing, we were handed a check for something like $33.78. We had been making two mortgage payments for a couple of years, and were so happy to be out from  under that debt that the check never made it home. We stopped at a restaurant afterward and celebrated.

I was thinking about that occasion this week when a bunch of prairie sodbusters forced the hand of the Wilf boys from Out East, and made them cough up an extra $50 million for the new Vikings stadium. That figures to about $10 per Minnesotan plus interest on the 30-year lease. Given today’s interest rates, that’s about $10.30 total.

That would get me a hot dog and a drink at the new stadium if I ever see the place. Most people I’ve asked tell me they plan to spend their Vikings dividend on gasoline. The Secretary and I will probably blow ours at a fast-food shop.

(Let’s be clear, the Wilfs won’t be sending any of us a check. It’s just that, assuming the economic projections are accurate, taxpayers won’t have to pay quite as much. In fact, because the state’s share is supposed to be paid by electronic pulltabs, it is a voluntary tax, paid only by the gamblers among us.)

There’s no need to shed any tears for the Wilfs. They negotiated a sweetheart deal, then threatened to leave if it wasn’t approved. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers acted like he had more important things to do, like provide some tax relief to a lot more businesses in Minnesota than the Wilfs represented.

So then the NFL sent in its commissioner, Roger Goodell, to wow  the Midwestern hayseeds, and Zellers acted like, “Gosh, we didn’t realize how important you are. We’ll try to squeeze in a vote.”

Subsequently, with time running out on the legislative session, the stadium bill, stalled for upwards of 15 years, moved through committees faster than a Packer linebacker blitzing Christian Ponder.

And finally, it went to the House floor. With Vikings fans chanting and officials salivating outside the chamber, the Legislature did what it  needed to do. It played politics.

At first, the Vikings’ point man Lester Bagley complained about the state failing to negotiate in good faith, but he was quickly silenced. The lawmakers stuck about 15 conditions on the bill that had not been discussed publicly.

It was clear that the deal was going to be constructed in a way that wasn’t as good as the Vikings wanted, but would make it impossible for them to walk away from the table in hopes of getting a more generous legislature to deal with next year.

Next, the Senate put together a similar concoction, and then the Vikings and the legislative conference committee assigned to reconcile the two bills played musical offices and hammered out an agreement.

There’s no need to spill any tears for the Wilfs. The fact that they accepted the extra $50 million obligation shows what a sweetheart deal it was originally.

The outspoken state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, says the stadium will be built by “losers.”  She was referring to the fact that the state’s share will be paid for through the use of electronic forms of charitable gambling, not the Wilfs.

In conference, the Easterners were able to maintain their exclusive right to bring a major league soccer team to the stadium and to keep all the revenue from naming rights.

And, in fact, a few others were actually winners. The state will send $2.7 million annually  to  St. Paul for the next 20 years.

If the projections are accurate, charitable gambling will bring in $72 million annually, with the state taking $59 million (way more than enough to pay for the stadium) and local non-profits will net $13 million. Say what you want about gambling, but in many small towns in rural Minnesota, charitable gambling has created revenue streams for civic projects that simply would not exist without it.

How do I feel about the deal? Conflicted.

No matter what the deal turned out to be, it can’t be justified economically. We’ve known for 15 years that we shouldn’t do it. We have so many more important needs.

And yet, as with the Timberwolves, Wild, Gophers and Twins before them, as a state we ponied up one more time. Why?

Chalk it up to vanity. We want to be big league. We want to believe that we can be champions. It’s the American way to believe that we can accomplish anything, and Minnesotans aren’t ready to give up on that.

Even though our relationship with these teams is like a bad marriage, we set rational thought aside and think, “Hang the cost. If we just love them enough, they’ll take us to the Super Bowl.”

It isn’t supposed to make sense.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.

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