Why would one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world, an NFL team, be on the verge of moving to a tiny suburb of 10,000 people? The Minnesota Vikings want to do just that with a new stadium in Arden Hills, and an unlikely pair of Ramsey County commissioners led them there.
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett is known for so-crazy-it-might-just-work ideas. He once tried to make light rail run a loop through downtown St. Paul, and also proposed tearing off the front of the old Union Depot and moving it across downtown.
Critics called those ideas grandstanding, but he did talk the St. Paul Police Department out of their century-old headquarters and into a county building on the East Side.
And now, he wants to move the Minnesota Vikings to his back yard. Bennett lives about a mile away from the old Army ammunition site the team now wants to call home. He said the building and its broken windows are an eyesore and he thinks the NFL will make a great neighbor.
"You're talking 400 and some acres of developable land, in a prime location, 10 miles from either loop," Bennett said. "It's part of the metro area; it's part of the state of Minnesota. We could put five of the downtown sites right into this site. It gives them the availability to do the entertainment, the tailgating, and the true experience of what other cities are doing."
If it works out, it'll bookend one of Minnesota's most unconventional political careers. Bennett is an East Side native, a former police office and a one time Republican state legislator who represented St. Paul and then Shoreview. He also did a stint as U.S. Marshal before joining the county board since 1997.
Former legislative colleague and now Minnesota Business Partnership head Charlie Weaver describes Bennett as an inveterate wheeler-dealer. He remembers Bennett and his wife for putting out a huge spread in a back room for House members — of all political stripes.
"Tony is kind of the dodo bird of elected officials," Weaver said. "One of the last that really has the background he's got, the style he's got, the dedication he's got. Those are all wrapped up in one Italian fun-loving package that remains pretty rare in politics. It's unfortunate that he is one of the last, because people like Tony get things done."
Bennett's also got a secret weapon, a years-long political partnership with fellow county commissioner Rafael Ortega, a liberal DFLer.
Ortega grew up the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in Manhattan. He said he first came to Minnesota on a Greyhound bus. Ortega went to graduate school and the worked for the state department of public health, the Minnesota Council of Churches, and also worked throughout the state on social justice issues.
"I'm a clinical social worker by background. I eventually became the CEO of a mental health agency and then got elected to office," Ortega said.
St. Paulette Fred Perez first met Ortega in New York decades ago. He concedes Ortega might seem an unlikely booster for professional football.
But Perez — a former Met Council member — thinks growing up in New York gave Ortega a feel for big ideas, like pushing for the Central Corridor Light Rail line. Ortega has been among the project's staunchest supporters.
"That was a knuckle-down fight. No one saw the vision of how important transportation would be or is here," Perez said. "In this city, I mean, we have it in New York, we have it in every other city. But not hear in Minneapolis-St. Paul. God forbid."
Ortega said the stadium is the marriage of a social good — jobs — and a big idea.
"When you look at the stadium, it's going to bring jobs. I'm helping clean up the biggest superfund site in the country. Those are key motivating issues for me," Ortega said.
The two county commissioners were back at the Capitol this week, pushing their offer for a county-wide half-cent sales tax to pay for the county's share of a stadium. The plan has a lot of critics, but Bennett thinks this time, unlike some of his past ideas, the deal may finally be in reach.