E-mails reveal under-the-radar maneuvering to land Vikings stadium

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak knew each name that would comprise the slim City Council majority backing his Minnesota Vikings stadium plan more than a month before the group put its support in writing.

The mayor's top aide was drafting letters of support as early as Feb. 21, featuring names of the same seven council members who eventually backed the deal on March 26. The letters are among 120 pages of e-mails released by the city at the Star Tribune's request that shed light on the behind-the-scenes frustrations and horse trading that preceded a March 1 agreement between the Vikings, the city and the state.

The e-mails also reveal the influence a top Target Corp. executive had in shaping even the smallest details regarding the city's Vikings stadium subsidy package.

A week before the stadium deal was announced, Target Executive Vice President John Griffith urged Rybak and others to finalize the city's agreement and bluntly told them what should be included and left out of the package. "I can imagine that some of this has made many of you anxious, my apologies," Griffith, the company's property development specialist, wrote on Feb. 21. "Much work awaits us. Let's go."

In those final days, the city's source of funding for its share of the nearly $1 billion stadium changed dramatically. In a Feb. 18 presentation by Griffith, much of the city's contribution came from a new hotel tax and game day parking surcharges, both of which were eventually dropped from the plan because of perceived opposition from Republican legislators and downtown residents. Other e-mails show the city pushed unsuccessfully to unload the city-owned Target Center onto a newly created stadium authority.

The messages from Rybak's inbox between Jan. 27 and Feb. 27 illustrate the round-the-clock drive to reach a deal, including many missives sent on weekends and late at night. While the stadium bill faces uncertain prospects at the Legislature, the plan got a significant boost when Rybak managed to pull together the narrowest majority in the face of six firm opponents on the 13-member City Council.

Tracking a swing vote

The e-mails show the shifting position of Council Member Sandra Colvin Roy, the crucial swing vote, who told the Star Tribune Feb. 14 that she still wanted a citywide vote on the stadium plan -- something that stadium backers thought would kill the deal. Colvin Roy inquired about the plan's finer points in mid-February, had an extended meeting with the mayor and then sought a meeting with the city's chief financial officer on Feb. 14.

"I think she is getting there," Jeremy Hanson Willis, Rybak's chief of staff, wrote on Feb. 15. "Meeting with her ASAP and underscoring the urgency to move will help."

Gov. Mark Dayton would later lobby Colvin Roy and Council Member Kevin Reich personally. But the mayor's office thought it had Reich's support early on.

On Feb. 3, John Stiles, the mayor's spokesman, outlined an upcoming press conference intended to "move weak Council opponents into the supporters column." Reich, who did not publicly support the plan until March 26, was slated to appear as "our 6th public City Council supporter" and was scripted to say, "I support this plan."

Reich, however, did not join them, and Council Member Diane Hofstede spoke instead.

"We thought that Kevin might join us there. And he obviously did not," Stiles said in an interview Wednesday, adding that Reich "was expressing interest in the event and in the jobs message of the event."

Council Member John Quincy asked the city's development chief, Chuck Lutz, for help crafting his initial position statement. Among other things, he felt the letter needed to address the city's position that there should not be a referendum, despite a provision requiring a citywide vote whenever the city spends $10 million or more on a sports facility.

"How to say this is a logical and good decision -- while weighing it against the risks of not honoring the charter, or appearing to be dismissing the voice of folks, or appearing slippery," Quincy wrote.

Council President Barb Johnson said Wednesday the draft letters featuring the list of eventual supporters, prepared by Hanson Willis, reflected "the people that were persuadable. And it just took a lot of time and answering of questions to ... get people to finally feel comfortable."

The e-mails also showed that city officials, in pushing for the letters, wanted to avoid a City Council vote on the stadium. Lutz said in a Feb. 20 e-mail that the letter was key not only for displaying support to the state leaders, but "avoiding a City Council vote at this time."

On the same day, Rybak wrote that without a letter of support "we will fight attacks from the council through this whole thing."

Unknown player

Griffith, the Target executive, had been a key player with the Downtown Council's planning vision for downtown Minneapolis, which included a new Vikings stadium. But the e-mails show that Griffith helped put together stadium slide presentations to help city officials sell the stadium plan, and even suggested in early February "a clean simple way to tell the story."

"This is meant to be a quick 'elevator' speech," Griffith said in a Feb. 9 e-mail. Rybak messaged Griffith back the same day that "we are very grateful for the exceptional help!"

On the same day, Griffith again said that "his team" had slides that would show "inflows will be $20 million in Vikings related taxes, taxes on the 3, 4 thousand jobs over the term as well as taxes on the construction jobs up front, additional hotel, restaurant, [and] bar revenue."

Griffith's influence also extended to the stadium's design, including a new plaza. In a Feb. 13 e-mail to Rybak, Griffith talked of having a plaza that at various times would feature six hockey rinks, two soccer fields, two lacrosse fields and an Olympic-size speed skating oval.

Griffith was not available Wednesday for comment, but Target spokesperson Amy Reilly said his stadium involvement dovetails with his extensive work developing a plan for downtown Minneapolis growth.

The Target executive also weighed in on another vital issue: Whether the City Council actually needed to approve the city's stadium subsidy package.

For Griffith, the answer was clear: No. "The legislation should simply state that if the city does not approve the deal, then the state will utilize the convention center taxes to pay the city's share of the stadium debt," he wrote on Feb. 21.

This article was written by Eric Roper and appeared in the Minnesota Pioneer Press.

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