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Deja Vu?-August 2011

The debate over where the Vikings should play revives a familiar plan for a sports and entertainment corridor near Minneapolis’s North Loop. Bruce Lambrecht, one of Target Field’s earliest and most controversial advocates, believes his ideas can win again.

Deja Vu?-August 2011
Editor’s Note: 

At press time, Arden Hills remained the most likely site for a new Vikings stadium, should one be approved and funded by the Minnesota Legislature this year. And to Vikings lead owner Zygi Wilf, the Arden Hills site remains the best idea when it comes to fans enjoying “the football experience,” including an open-roof stadium and plenty of parking spaces for tailgating.

But will an Arden Hills stadium come to pass? And is it the smartest plan for the Twin Cities?

A small and relatively unknown group of downtown Minneapolis property owners is pressing for what it says would be the best plan: a Vikings stadium next to the Twins ballpark on land now partly occupied by the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market. A group of prominent business leaders, including the CEOs of U.S. Bank, Ecolab, Best Buy, General Mills, Medtronic, and Target, reportedly has been trying to make this option work.

To them, and to others aware of how the Twins ballpark came about, the debate over a new stadium site might feel a bit like history repeating itself. 

In the mid-’90s, Twins owner Carl Pohlad viewed the land now occupied by the Guthrie Theater as the site for a new Twins stadium. Others pressed for a ballpark in what was then viewed as one of the worst places possible: a parking lot crammed between Warehouse District buildings, freeway entrance and exit ramps, and Washington Avenue. It’s where Target Field now stands. But one of the site’s most vocal proponents spent years being brushed aside and ridiculed. 

Regardless, Bruce Lambrecht now champions an adjacent football stadium with equal zeal. And this time around, he has some pretty significant people
supporting his idea.    —Dale Kurschner


Well into its second season, Target Field is regarded as the pearl of Minneapolis’s North Loop. And as any gemologist will tell you, a pearl doesn’t spontaneously form in an oyster’s shell. It requires an irritant, a bit of grit that works its way inside the bivalve. Around that, slowly, the oyster forms a pearlescent gloss that completely obscures the roughage at its core. 

Friends and associates of Bruce Lambrecht insist that in the story of Target Field’s origins, he is the grit around which better-known or more-admired  players collected.

Now, “it kind of feels like déjà vu,” Lambrecht says. He and business partner David Albersman are reprising for a reporter their dark-horse proposal for a Vikings stadium, running through PowerPoint slides in Lambrecht’s office in the limestone-walled basement of the Union Plaza building. They’re pitching a facility on 43 acres next to Target Field. This time, Lambrecht and his partners don’t own the site that they advocate, as they did with the ballpark land. They do own Union Plaza and other nearby properties in the North Loop. 

In early July, as the stadium debate plays out against the backdrop of an unsettled state budget and a state government shutdown, Hennepin County has taken to the sidelines. The City of Minneapolis continues to back a renovation of the Metrodome. And Ramsey County and the Vikings anticipate that a special session of the legislature will allow a half-cent county sales tax (over City of St. Paul opposition) and road improvements, thereby rounding out funding for a stadium in Arden Hills. 

Lambrecht, meanwhile, hopes that once again, disparate forces will coalesce around his vision—not just for another sports facility, but for the North Loop “sports and entertainment corridor” that he and Albersman began touting more than a decade ago. 

“We never in our wildest dreams thought we’d be coming out with this drawing we had back in 2002,” Albersman says. Indeed, dates on their PowerPoint renderings show that a football stadium was part of their earliest proposals for creating a “Twinsville”—a cluster of sports facilities that in turn could attract residential and retail development. 

More recent transit plans only make the vision more appealing today, in Lambrecht’s view. He pictures fans “railgating” and “trailgating” before games. The Farmers’ Market site aligns with the Target Field transit hub that brings together Hiawatha light rail, Northstar commuter rail, and several bus lines; it also ties into the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line and Bottineau Transitway (light rail or bus rapid transit), and with the recently opened Cedar Lake Bike Trail.

This time around, Albersman observes, “I think that the success of Target Field has given Bruce a platform that he didn’t have before.”

Former Minneapolis City Council member Steve Minn, a developer of real estate and a principal with Minneapolis-based Lupe Development Partners, felt the same sense of déjà vu when he heard about Lambrecht’s latest stadium push. Minn recalls first meeting Lambrecht and another of his business partners, Rich Pogin, in the mid-1990s, when Minn was still on the council. 

“I was immediately impressed with their grasp of the city and its problems,” Minn says. “They really had a grasp of that part of the city as an entertainment district.” 

Lambrecht had done an informal study of ballfields over a period of eight years, loading his family into an RV and making “vacation” pilgrimages to 27 ballparks around the country. His travels were inspired by a 1989 book, City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense About Cities and Baseball Parks, written by University of Notre Dame architecture professor Philip Bess. Bess’s book is a treatise on the merits of the intimate ballparks of the early 1900s and how they fostered community. 

Lambrecht was persuasive with Minn and others on the city council. Most council members, then–Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and the Twins wanted to see a new ballpark where the Guthrie Theater stands today. Former council member Jackie Cherryhomes, who now lobbies for businesses in the North Loop, says, “I remember at first thinking, ‘This is kind of a goofy idea.” But she later took Sayles-Belton and the Twins’ Jim Pohlad and Jerry Bell down to Lambrecht’s proposed stadium site, “trying to convince them that this was the place to build the new Twins ballpark. And that was all due to Bruce’s vision.”

In his zeal, however, Lambrecht also rubbed allies the wrong way. He presented his plan to New Ballpark, Inc., an amalgam of civic and business leaders that met regularly near the site of the old Nicollet Park baseball stadium, just south of Lake Street, looking for ways to get a new Twins stadium built in Minneapolis. Mark Oyaas, one of the group’s founders, recalls that New Ballpark, Inc., under the leadership of then–Wells Fargo President Jim Campbell, had been meeting for a year already when “Bruce was directed to us. We didn’t follow in behind him.” 

Lambrecht informally joined forces with Oyaas’s group and with another formed by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Council, called Minneapolis Home Field Advantage. But there was disharmony. Lambrecht was convinced that the only way to fund a stadium was to capture sunsetting taxes on car rentals and other items. But the Minneapolis boosters, Oyaas recalls, had decided that that strategy was a nonstarter with legislative leaders and the governor’s office.

Lambrecht “totally pissed everybody off,” Oyaas says, by breaking away from the Minneapolis consortium and funding a radio commercial that hyped his own approach to building a new stadium.

Pogin says, “When Bruce thinks he’s right, there is no stopping him. The same obsessions that drive him to realize dreams can be destructive demons.”

For his part, Pogin wanted nothing to do with plans for an urban ballpark on the land where he and Lambrecht were making a beautiful dollar for themselves and their investors by operating a Rapid Park parking lot. Investment Management, Inc., Lambrecht’s company, still owns Rapid Park, now on a fragment of its former site. It also owns—with 70 to 100 investors at each site, Lambrecht says—Union Plaza, the Minikahda Storage facility near Target Field, and five other Minikahda Storage sites in the Twin Cities metro.

Pogin says of Lambrecht’s ballpark dreams: “I told him it was one of the dumbest ideas I ever heard.
That it would take a bunch of money to even pursue. And even if you were successful, it would result in nothing more than a condemnation for [us and our] 70 investors.”

But even Pogin’s pragmatism yielded to Lambrecht’s persistence. He recalls telling Lambrecht, after looking at plans and renderings of the ballpark done by Albersman, “Look, Dave’s expertise is in parking ramps. I love Dave. He’s a bright guy. But you’ve got to come up with someone with real expertise” in ballparks. He and Lambrecht began Googling stadium architects. Their searches yielded one Earl Santee of HOK Architects (the firm is now called Populous) in Kansas City, Missouri.

“It took Bruce months just to get someone on the phone,” Pogin says. “[HOK] sent a couple of young guys up to take a look [at the site]. And then, eventually, Bruce got Earl Santee to come up and take a look.” 

Star Tribune sportswriter Jim Souhan would later name Santee the newspaper’s 2010 “Sportsperson of the Year,” and immortalize in his column the moment when Santee “drove into a parking lot in Minneapolis, stopped, looked south, and saw what wasn’t there,” conjuring “a ballpark that even he doubted could be built.” But it was Lambrecht, Pogin says ruefully, who drove Santee to the spot where inspiration struck. 

Lambrecht’s detractors might not mind that he seems to get airbrushed from the picture. Some branded him a hypocrite for the apparent disconnect between his conservative fiscal and political views and his efforts to market his ballpark site. Lambrecht, who has a business degree from the University of Minnesota and worked eight years for General Mills before starting his real estate business, has a record of being staunchly anti-tax. He’s a cofounder of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, and a donor to the Republican Party and to former Governor Tim Pawlenty. That seemed at odds with a sales pitch for his property that hinged on parking ramps, improved freeway access, a light rail line, and a transit transfer station, all paid for with taxpayer dollars. His group’s private investment in the site was limited mostly to a skin of pavement. 

Oyaas says “the irony” of Lambrecht’s radio ad “was the commercial was playing almost exclusively on the [conservative talk-radio station] 1280 AM the Patriot, which, for all kinds of reasons, damaged Bruce’s credibility.”

Friends and supporters say that like any shrewd businessperson, Lambrecht recognized the synergy of public works with his vision for an urban ballfield, and pivoted to make use of it.

“Enlightened self-interest? At every turn,” Oyaas says. And that can be said of any of a number of those involved in the Target Field project. But Oyaas insists that at the heart of Lambrecht’s effort was the brio to fight long odds for a long time: “Bruce was inspired by the idea of the city-building stuff. And he genuinely wants to be a contributor.

“There were nights he went to bed and forgot he owned that land,” Oyaas adds. “I really believe that.”

 

In his campaign to move the Vikings to the Farmers’ Market site, Lambrecht says he and his investors would stand to benefit only in the sense that the entire North Loop or the entire city or state would benefit from a sensibly sited football stadium. He acknowledges there could be some positive “ripple effects” for business and property owners in the North Loop. “But that’s not the reason I’ve been working with David on the plan.” Lambrecht wants to make it clear that his Vikings stadium proposal is personal and not a project of Investment Management, Inc.

Pogin was prescient, and the land sale for Target Field ended up in condemnation court in 2007. But despite ultimately settling for a much lower price than the investor group felt it should have, Lambrecht has been unable to shed the scarlet “G, for greedy” that Hennepin County and the local sports establishment hung from his neck when the sale became adversarial.

The county, in its efforts to get the stadium bill passed in 2006, agreed to a cap on the public cost of infrastructure and land, which was added to the legislation by a stadium detractor. Public money would only stretch far enough to pay for inviting walkways, bridges, and connections to downtown if the cost of the land remained where it had been two years earlier, when the county had signed an option to buy the property from Lambrecht, Pogin, and others for $12 million.

The option expired, and Lambrecht and Pogin say they heard no more from the county. Then, with a cap on public dollars in place, the county low-balled their investor group with an $8 million offer; Pogin countered with a jaw-dropping price of $65 million. Tempers spiked. Lawyers were hired.

“I negotiated the land deal,” Pogin says. “My name was on all the documents . . .  but I’m not as visible [as Lambrecht] and couldn’t care less. I’m a bean counter. So they went after Bruce.” 

Star Tribune columnist Pat Reusse wrote in February 2007 that county and team officials did “Lambrecht’s group the favor of endorsing a site-specific bill. It has seized that clause to demand an outrageous sum.”

Reusse anonymously quoted a local politician saying “that’s a lot of money for a ditch,” then adopted it as his own catch phrase for Lambrecht’s ballpark site. “The desperate Twins took what they could get: a cramped outdoor ballpark located not along the Father of Waters but in Bruce’s Ditch.”

Ultimately, the parties settled on $29 million for the land, with the Twins ponying up the difference between available public money and the cost of infrastructure improvements.

In a column last May, Reusse characterized Lambrecht and Albersman’s Vikings stadium pitch as “an impressive presentation.” 

Another fan of the Farmers’ Market plan is Twins President Dave St. Peter. “We’ve found this to be an exciting place for a ballpark, and a football stadium would certainly add to that,” St. Peter says. “We view it from a civic perspective and think it would be a great addition to what has developed into a dynamic entertainment district.

“It’s not the first time I’ve seen a proposal for a stadium on that site,” St. Peter adds, and mentions the same prominent players in the business community that have been named in various media accounts as supporters of the Farmers’ Market site.

 

Lambrecht and Albersman don’t claim to be visionaries, merely two guys paying attention to the way Minneapolis has evolved since the Metrodome was built. 

With the exception of Hubert’s across Sixth Street, none of the commercial development that was anticipated around the Dome has come to pass. Instead, housing and restaurants have sprung up around the riverfront, the Guthrie, and the Mill City Museum, Lambrecht points out. As the economy improves, he argues, the Metrodome’s continued presence will only serve as a drag on what could be more logical and successful development on downtown’s east end, related to the health care and education facilities nearby. 

In essence, Lambrecht sees the Metrodome as a siting mistake. He and Albersman say that rather than repeating it, involved parties should examine a “best and highest use” argument for that land, which involves selling it, freeing up its 22 acres for redevelopment, and using the $40 to $50 million in proceeds for “assembling” the land now held by 18 disparate owners at the Farmers’ Market site—thus removing the one weakness that Lambrecht and Albersman identify in their proposal for the Farmers’ Market: It involves twice the number of landowners that the Metrodome property does.

That one negative is outweighed by numerous infrastructure and economic-planning positives at the Farmers’ Market site, Lambrecht says. Whatever happens with the legislature and an Arden Hills plan, “we can continue to meet with people in the business, civic, and political community,” he says. “That’s exactly what we did on Target Field, and that project took seven years. This project, I don’t think it’s going to take seven years. It could take a year to a year and a half.”

Despite his own interest in seeing a Vikings stadium come to Minneapolis’s North Loop, Minn gives Lambrecht’s plan only a 20 percent shot of succeeding. “The Metrodome was an extremely bad ballpark, but it’s a quite adequate football stadium,” Minn says, noting that football fans already can get to and from the Metrodome site and find adequate parking, and the Dome is already served by a light rail station. 

“As we’re talking now,” Lambrecht says, “we have no political support.” But “great ideas draw capital,” he adds. “And as with the Twins stadium, I think we’ve got the best idea.”

—Jim Leinfelder

A bill introduced at the Minnesota Legislature leaves the stadium site open to a local government partner willing to foot a third of the cost of an estimated $900 million roofed stadium. As of July 7, these three options have emerged: 

ARDEN HILLS

Cost: $1 billion

Vikings, $407 million

Ramsey County, $350 million through a half-percent sales tax increase

State of Minnesota, $300 million, plus $175 million for road improvements

Roof: Unroofed or retractable  

Seats: 65,000

Jobs: Undetermined

Facility Management: Vikings decide (maybe AEG)

 

Pros: 

Momentum—the Vikings like it and local partners showed initiative and cooperation in planning.

Lots of space for tailgating and parking, meaning a more robust “football experience” for fans, and additional revenues for the Vikings. The NFL could reduce the subsidies it pays the team due to low parking and concession revenues at the Metrodome.

Allows for an open roof –Zygi Wilf wants this. 

Would leave the Metrodome site open for redevelopment plans that suit the city’s larger visions for Downtown East. 

 

Cons:

Prominent detractors—several business leaders don’t like the site; corporate investment in suites and season tickets may suffer as a result. Officials in Ramsey County’s biggest city, St. Paul, are also not on board.

Very few nearby restaurants and bars for fans to go to before or after a game.

Lack of public transit.

Surprises could still be hiding in the soil of this Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

METRODOME 

Cost: $895 million

Vikings, $400 million  

City of Minneapolis, $195 million  

State of Minnesota, $300 million

Roof: Roofed

Seats: Undetermined

Jobs: 9,000 construction jobs for two to three years

Facility Management: Ownership of Target Center would be transferred to a new stadium authority that also would manage the new Vikings stadium and the convention center. 

 

Pros:

The financing would also cover a $95 million renovation of the 20-year-old Target Center, while enabling the city to put $5 million a year toward its remaining $50 million in debt on that facility.

Would provide Minneapolis property taxpayers up to a 2 percent savings on the city portion of their bills.

Reuses an existing site and its infrastructure.

 

Cons: 

Cold shoulders—citizen opposition, a cool response from business leaders, and a chilly one from the Vikings.

Vikings estimate $40 million in lost revenue annually while playing in TCF Bank Stadium during a rebuild.

Taxation shell game: City covers its costs by charging an admission tax on stadium events, raising street parking fees on game days, extending a downtown hotel, liquor, and restaurant tax citywide, and adding a new 0.15 percent sales tax. Say bye-bye to any net benefits from the local property tax relief mentioned above.

The legislature would need to override the voter-approved 1997 city charter amendment that prohibits using more than $10 million in city funds for a pro sports facility without a referendum.

Very few nearby restaurants and bars for fans to go to before or after a game.

FARMERS’ MARKET 

Cost: $1.2 billion

Vikings, less than $400 million

State of Minnesota, $300 million

Another partner, to be determined, pays the balance, but who and how?

Roof: Could be fixed or retractable

Seats: Undetermined

Jobs: Undetermined

Facility Management: Unknown (maybe AEG)

 

Pros:

Effective site use in the context of other city and regional transit and development plans.

Supported by leaders of several key businesses; some reportedly have contributed to a fund to develop a plan for a downtown stadium that is not at the Metrodome site.

Abundant restaurant and bar options nearby.

Plenty of parking; freeway access and other automobile transportation infrastructure is also in place.

Would leave the Metrodome site open for redevelopment plans that suit the city’s larger visions for Downtown East.

 

Cons: 

Costs are higher due to the need to acquire land that’s already in use and has numerous owners.

More of the plan’s details remain undetermined compared with other sites.

No one has come forward with a comprehensive plan that addresses specific concerns: additional financing, for example, and the Vikings’ wish list, including an open roof and more parking revenue.

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