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Minnesota 2020 Journal: A Better Stadium Debate

February 17, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota policymakers are contemplating building a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesotans seem to like the Vikings and value community facilities but oppose, roughly 2-1, a publicly funded stadium.

I’m a great fan of perspective. It’s worth considering other recent stadium experiences. The Indianapolis Super Bowl provides a cautionary but not project-killing tale.

Indianapolis was, for the longest time, America’s crossroads. That was true for rail and roads. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ headquarters used to be located in Indianapolis. Indy is on, not off, the beaten path.

That said, it’s a good tick smaller than the Twin Cities’ combined metropolitan statistical area population of 3.6 million to Indianapolis’ 2.1 million. But, the Indianapolis area grew slightly faster between 2000 and 2010. As a result, they’ve invested in lots of new infrastructure. A football stadium is only the tip of that iceberg.

Indianapolis still owes money–public money-on the RCA/Hoosier Dome football stadium torn down to build the new $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium. Indy is paying for a sports facility that isn’t even there.

The Hoosier Dome, with a billowy Teflon and cable roof, looked a lot like the Metro Dome. Aesthetically, Lucas Oil Stadium is an improvement. When the Metro Dome is eventually felled, we’ll miss the facility’s events but not the building.

But, is the Lucas Oil Stadium a good deal for Indianapolis and Indiana? Well, that depends on how you feel about zip lines.

The NFL helped nudge the new stadium by promising Indy a Super Bowl. Indianapolis, like the Twin Cities, has a lot going for it but it’s not a big tourist destination. We love living here but we’re always perplexed why anyone would visit. The same holds for Indy.

The Super Bowl’s event planners decided that Indianapolis needed more event pizzazz. Their big idea? Four parallel 800 foot-long zip lines, inside the Super Bowl Village fan-experience area for ten bucks a go. Apart from, or perhaps in spite of, the football game, the zip line was huge. It was the week’s most popular element, selling out every ticket, every day. The locals loved the zip line.

None of this has anything to do with public stadium financing, at least not directly. No one in their right mind would pour $720 million into a zip line ride backdrop. But, stadiums aren’t only about their tenant sports teams. Stadiums reflect community identity, values and principles.

Set aside the greedy owner/rich athlete oppositional argument for a moment and contemplate stadium as public facility. People have always created public gathering space. Parks are perceived differently from publicly-owned professional sports facilities but in both cases, public investment creates the space in order to achieve a public good.

Parks are shared space, reflecting a community’s commitment to accessible recreational opportunity, a contemporary manifestation of the concept of public commons. Parks are for everyone but the benefit is much subtler and wider ranging than simply providing room for weenie roasts, youth hockey and Frisbee golf. Public space raises property values. A park adjacent house is worth more than a house considerably distant from a park because of the park’s public amenity derived value.

Creating public space creates private value. Surrendering public commons to private control tends to raise the public’s hackles which is what’s happening with the Vikings stadium debate. If a new stadium is substantially publicly funded yet effective control remains in non-public hands, is that facility still public space?

Yes and no.

No, it’s not public space because I can’t freely wander around a stadium like I could in Redwood County’s Plum Creek Park. Yes, it’s public space because a community use, however imperfect, is achieved through the Vikings football franchise and accompanying community identity. Losing the Vikings would be a community loss. The policy question, however, involves determining the right amount of public investment to achieve community good.

None of this is easy. If it were, we’d have already found the solution. It’s important to start, I think, with the goal of achieving collective public good. A stadium’s imposing cost must be matched against the public infrastructure’s benefit. A stadium is one element in a much larger mix of community facilities that serve us in slightly different fashions. Just as closing a public park comes with a social cost that transcends financial concerns, a stadium’s construction costs create community value.

Minnesota needs a stadium debate that moves us forward. The conservative model of not-so-subtly sticking someone else with the bill is failing our state. A deal that builds community, puts workers to work, creates values, shares financial risk and expands infrastructure would be a heckuva zip line ride.

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