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Minneapolis Vikings Dome Subsidy Blocked by Taxpayer Wrath

The formula to get taxpayers to pay for professional sports stadiums usually works this way: Promise construction jobs and downtown revitalization, and threaten to move the team if you don’t get what you want.

That strategy is meeting stiff resistance in Minnesota, where unhappiness with cuts to education and human services, and Tea Party politics in the Legislature have stalled efforts to obtain a public subsidy to build a $1 billion stadium for the National Football League’s Vikings. The fight has thrust the state’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, 65, into the role of head cheerleader for the Vikings.

“I’m amazed that some people feel no urgency to put several thousand more Minnesotans back to work,” Dayton said in his Feb. 15 State of the State speech. “Some of you reportedly want to avoid voting on a stadium until after next fall’s elections. That would be terribly unfair.”

The slowdown has empowered taxpayers who have grown accustomed to seeing public dollars pay for football titans’ stadiums even as the nation recovers from the worst recession since the 1930s. State revenue nationwide remained 7 percent below prerecession levels in the third quarter of 2011, and is “not growing fast enough to recover any time soon,” according to a report this month by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based nonprofit research group.

Subsidy resistance is also massing in St. Louis, where the NFL Rams want $124 million in upgrades to the 16-year-old Edward Jones Dome.

‘It’s Just Nuts’

“The city doesn’t have enough money to maintain a dog pound and the mayor doesn’t know how he’ll pay for pensions,” Fred Lindecke, spokesman for the St. Louis-based Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, said in a telephone interview. “In that kind of atmosphere we’re supposed to subsidize a multimillionaire? It’s just nuts.”

Seattle is considering a proposal for a new basketball and hockey arena that would include $200 million in city and county financing, and require no new taxes, the Seattle Times reported.

Research by Judith Grant Long, who teaches urban planning at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has shown that public subsidies for sports venues cost taxpayers an average of 40 percent more than the stated price for each of the 99 facilities built through 2001.

In Minnesota, the Vikings want as much as $700 million in state and local government support, roughly 60 percent of the annual $1.2 billion Minneapolis budget. A site hasn’t been determined for a stadium and financing hasn’t been decided.

Roof Falls In

While the Twin Cities have lost professional hockey and basketball teams, the Vikings have been a mainstay since 1961. They’ve played for 30 years in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where the roof collapsed in 2010 under the weight of heavy snow. The Vikings notified the NFL on Feb. 15 that they will play the 2012 season in the Metrodome, despite the expiration of the lease.

While business leaders are rallying around the idea of a new stadium, as is Mayor R.T. Rybak, the City Council hasn’t embraced taxpayer support, nor have lawmakers.

“What’s more urgent are the broken emergency medical systems in the state, where people are being turned away from dialysis and chemotherapy,” said state Representative Karen Clark, a Democrat of Minneapolis. “Our wealthy players and owners, I think they can hang in there a bit. It doesn’t seem so urgent to me.”

The Vikings are owned by Zygi Wilf, 61, a real estate developer. He didn’t immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.

Strange Teammates

Stadium politics has changed in the state, creating “peculiar coalitions,” said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The business-oriented constituency of the Republican Party, Jacobs said, has been weakened by a faction bent on lowering taxes and cutting spending.

“And you’ve got a Democratic governor fighting like heck for it,” Jacobs said. “A very strange situation.”

The debate over stadiums’ economic benefit has raged for decades. Brad Humphreys, a sports economist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, said the argument for new stadiums “used to be that they’d create jobs, and that’s been debunked. Now it’s because you need to revitalize downtowns,” he said.

“The jury’s still out on whether the revitalization takes place,” Humphreys added.

Humphreys co-wrote a 2008 study that said most economists “believe that sports subsidies are unwarranted.”

Rams Running

“The fact that sports subsidies continue to be granted, despite the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that no tangible economic benefits are generated by these heavily subsidized professional sports facilities, remains the puzzle,” the report said.

In St. Louis, financial pressures prompted the Convention and Visitors Commission to propose that the Rams pick up 52 percent of the cost of renovating the Jones Dome.

The Rams, who can break their lease and move if luxury box, lighting and other issues aren’t addressed, have until March 2 to respond to the proposal. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995 from Los Angeles, seven years after the Cardinals moved to Phoenix.

Voters Weigh In

Voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County approved ballot issues in 2002 and 2004 requiring public votes for the building of taxpayer-supported stadiums. While changes to the Jones Dome wouldn’t require a vote, Mayor Francis Slay promised in a Feb. 1 blog posting that “new public dollars spent to make the facility ‘top tier’ will be subject to the prior vote of the people.

‘‘If the CVC gets an agreement with the Rams, YOU will get the final say.’’

Rams owner E. Stanley Kroenke, 64, who runs Kroenke Sports Enterprises, didn’t immediately return telephone messages seeking comment. Artis Twyman, communications director for the Rams, said the team had nothing to say.

With states and cities cutting education funding and other popular services, stadiums are a harder sell, said Patrick Rishe, an economist at Webster University in suburban St. Louis.

‘‘This is not the kind of environment to be making ultimatums for upgrades to football facilities,’’ Rishe said.

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