ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have been given an ultimatum of sorts in their quest for a new stadium.
Gov. Mark Dayton and a key lawmaker said Tuesday that the team must build on the site of the Metrodome -- its least-favorite option -- or state funding help for the multimillion-dollar project won't happen this year.
Minnesota's 2012 legislative session began Tuesday, one expected to be dominated by the team's stadium drive. But the issue came to a head more quickly than expected as Dayton confirmed that he had informed Vikings owner Zygi Wilf that a new stadium has to be built at the current site of the Metrodome in order to secure any kind of state funding from lawmakers this year.
"I've made it clear it's my belief that in this session, the only viable option is the Metrodome site," the Democratic governor said.
"I do believe that's where it's going to be," added Republican state Sen. Julie Rosen, the chief stadium bill sponsor.
The Vikings have wanted out of the Metrodome for years, calling the 30-year-old stadium no longer sufficiently profitable compared to other NFL venues. The team's lease at the Metrodome expires Feb. 1, and hanging over their new stadium push has been the fear among fans that the team will leave Minnesota, just like the Lakers long ago.
Of the three sites that had been under discussion for a new stadium, the Metrodome had been the least favorite of the Vikings' owners.
"Our owners are extremely frustrated with the situation," said Lester Bagley, a team vice president.
Bagley said team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf are eager to hear Dayton's rationale for the Metrodome site, Bagley said, insisting that the team is "100 percent focused on getting it done in Minnesota."
The Vikings prefer a $1.1 billion stadium proposal on a site in suburban Ramsey County, north of St. Paul, that offers space to build adjacent team facilities as well as retail, hotel and entertainment development. But funding that proposal would require a sales tax increase in the county, a move that lacks support.
With hopes dimming on the Ramsey County site in recent weeks, Vikings executives subsequently warmed to another Minneapolis option, a plan for a $995 million stadium on the opposite side of downtown from the Metrodome. But Dayton said Tuesday that plan was doomed by strong opposition from leaders at the Basilica of St. Mary, a historic Catholic Church adjacent to the site, and by apparent opposition on the Minneapolis City Council, where more members prefer the Metrodome location.
Dayton met twice in recent days with the Rev. John Bauer, rector of the Basilica, who had been concerned the stadium would cause Sunday parking problems and other headaches for the congregation; Bauer also threatened a lawsuit. Dayton said the problems were probably insurmountable.
"I understood their concerns, and they were very valid," Dayton said. He said if the Vikings owners were willing to wait another year, it might leave time to try to address some of the problems with the two discarded sites — but that only the Metrodome is a possibility if a deal is to get done in what's expected to be a brief legislative session.
With Dayton and Rosen on the same page, and Rosen saying she expected to introduce a Metrodome-specific stadium financing bill soon, the Vikings' only hope for landing elsewhere appeared to lie with Rep. Morrie Lanning, the chief stadium bill sponsor in the House.
Lanning said he agreed the site near the church is currently unworkable, but it is too early to discard the Ramsey County site on a former Army ammunition dump in Arden Hills.
"For us to walk away from Arden Hills at this point in time I don't think is very smart, because there are still issues that remain with regard to the Metrodome," said Lanning, a Republican from Moorhead.
Specifically, the Vikings point out that pursuing the $918 million Metrodome site proposal would force them to play several seasons at the University of Minnesota's football stadium, at significant expense to the team. The Metrodome site is viewed as having less room for parking and tailgating, and less potential to spawn new restaurants, bars and other entertainment options nearby. Lanning said he expects legislative opposition to the insistence by Minneapolis city officials that any football stadium bill include about $100 million for a renovation of the Target Center basketball arena.
Backers of the Metrodome site argue the area has the existing infrastructure to handle football crowds, and that it will be easier to convince city council members to support the mayor's proposal to divert proceeds from an existing city sales tax to help bankroll the construction.
Dayton said he would host a meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday that would include Zygi Wilf and other team executives, Rosen and Lanning and other lawmakers, and officials from the city of Minneapolis.
"I can't foresee what's going to happen tomorrow," Dayton said.