ST. PAUL, Minn. – Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said Wednesday that the team wants a new stadium in the Twin Cities, even if it means building on the current site of the Metrodome.
It was the New Jersey businessman's strongest signal that he would ultimately accept the site that for months had been his least favorite among a handful of options.
"I'm optimistic that it could be," Wilf said when asked if the Metrodome's downtown Minneapolis location could be the site of a sparkling new stadium that he wants to be partially funded by state money.
Wilf and team officials met privately with Gov. Mark Dayton, several state lawmakers, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and others to discuss tearing down the Metrodome and rebuilding there.
The meeting came after several days in which the team's bid for public funding appeared on the brink of falling apart, at least for the year, as Dayton proclaimed two other site options unworkable and Wilf was said to be frustrated that a proposal to build in suburban Arden Hills had been discarded.
The group emerged after more than three hours to say the Metrodome site would be the focus of stadium negotiations going forward.
Concerns about the site remain, meeting participants said: the Vikings face a costly and logistically difficult relocation to the University of Minnesota's football stadium for three seasons, and team officials are concerned the crowded Metrodome location offers too little space for new parking, game-day tailgating, and adjacent development projects.
Another Minneapolis option, on the other side of downtown, appeared to be completely dead. While the Vikings had been warming to the site, opposition on the Minneapolis City Council and its proximity to a historic Catholic Church — whose rector threatened to sue to prevent it — apparently doomed its prospects.
No one was ready to write off the Arden Hills option entirely. Wilf said while the team still has hopes for Arden Hills, "we will leave it up to the legislative working group to decide where they would want us to work hardest at."
The Vikings have sought a replacement to the Metrodome for nearly a decade, contending it no longer generates sufficient revenue for the team to keep up with other NFL clubs, most of which are playing in new or renovated facilities. The Vikings used to share the building with the Twins and the University of Minnesota, but both opened new stadiums within the last two years.
Building a new stadium on the same spot as the Metrodome is an old idea, with a number of plans and blueprints sketched out in recent years.
But the team backed the Arden Hills proposal last spring after state lawmakers told them to find a willing host. As Minneapolis leaders waffled on rebuilding downtown, Ramsey County commissioners swooped in to offer a large suburban swath of land in the St. Paul suburb that once held an Army ammunition plant.
The team envisioned not only a stadium but space for a training camp and museum, plenty of room for tailgating and other game-day activities, and the possibility of related retail and hotel development that prompted some critics to dub the project "Zygi-World."
The Ramsey County plan hit a major roadblock by requiring a local sales tax increase to raise about a third of a $1.1 billion price tag. The Vikings are on tap to pay about another third of that total, and state lawmakers say they're likely to raise the final third by expanding gambling and using the tax proceeds from that. But the Ramsey County sales tax increase has little support, which would make the plan untenable.
"We've put some confinements around them," said Sen. Julie Rosen, the chief state Senate author of the stadium bill. "If they can come back to us with another proposal to keep this alive, by the end of the week, then we'll take another look at it. At this point, it's not doable as far as I'm concerned."
The current Metrodome site plan is cheaper, about $920 million, and Rybak has offered to divert an existing city sales tax to help pay a share. That will require the support of the Minneapolis City Council, whose members have met the mayor's stadium push with skepticism.
Rybak said having the team on board with the Metrodome location would make a big difference. "I think every Vikings fan knows it's easier to get down the field if the team is moving in the same direction," he said after the meeting.
One of the costs of making the Metrodome site work could be coming up with an additional $100 million to refurbish the Target Center basketball arena, the upkeep of which is currently the responsibility of Minneapolis taxpayers — a fact that doesn't sit well with Minneapolis councilmembers.
Rybak said the Target Center money would be necessary to getting a Metrodome deal through the council, though Rep. Morrie Lanning, the stadium bill's chief House author, said that cost votes in the Legislature.
"Any idea out there that we have is going to gain us some votes or lose us some votes," Lanning said. "That's why this is so difficult to put this together. Because you have to gauge — is it going to help us get this job done, or is it going to keep us from getting this job done?"