By PATRICK CONDON, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- For a solid decade, the countdown to the end of the Minnesota Vikings' lease at the Metrodome has hung like a hammer over the political debate on whether citizens should help pay for a new stadium. That lease is about to expire, but thanks to a confluence of NFL deadlines and Minnesota's legislative calendar, it's not looking like the advantage the Vikings might have hoped.
"Let's address this issue before it becomes a crisis because that's where we're headed," said Lester Bagley, the Vikings' stadium point man -- in 2003. The moment Bagley was predicting back then has arrived, and while there's a flurry of Capitol activity over the stadium, the team's immediate prospects for relocating are remote.
Within weeks, the Vikings are likely to be in a position where they must acknowledge the certainty of a 2012 kickoff right back in the Metrodome.
"We believe our lease is expired," Bagley, still plugging away as the team's vice president of stadium development, said this week.
On paper, the lease runs through the 2011 season, which ends next Sunday after the Giants meet the Patriots in Indianapolis. But just 10 days after that comes the National Football League's deadline by which an owner must notify the league of the intention to relocate a team for the next season -- a grim prospect that has fueled the rhetoric of Vikings fans and their political allies pushing for stadium money.
While there are cities looking for an NFL franchise, Los Angeles chief among them, hurdles are steep to it happening quickly. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said league executives do not believe two Los Angeles groups vying to build a new stadium and land a franchise are in position to field a team by the '12 season, and no other cities are even near as far along as that.
"I don't know of any scenario where they play anywhere else but the Dome in 2012," said Ted Mondale, whom Gov. Mark Dayton tapped to lead the public board that owns the Metrodome. (Mondale believes a loophole in the team's lease will keep them there for one more year regardless, but the Vikings disagree with that interpretation. It's a dispute that may ultimately be irrelevant.)
The Vikings don't need a new lease to keep playing in the Metrodome -- the Minnesota Twins proved that when their own lease there expired after the 2004 season. Even after that, and perpetual worries the team could relocate, state lawmakers still took two more years before finally approving public funding for a new baseball stadium.
"If they don't throw you out -- which of course they're not going to do -- then the terms of the lease apply even if you don't have a lease," said Jerry Bell, the retired former Twins president and a veteran of stadium political fights. The Twins finally moved into Target Field at the start of the 2010 season.
At the Capitol, the Vikings stadium debate has been stuck in a muddle as Dayton and the team's legislative allies struggle to assemble a proposal that could pass the House and Senate. In recent days, a proposal to tear down the Metrodome and rebuild at the same site has emerged as the flavor of the moment. In that scenario, the Vikings would temporarily move a couple miles to TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota, but the expenses forced by such a move make that an "only if absolutely necessary" possibility. And the Metrodome plan has already gotten major pushback by members of the Minneapolis City Council, who have the power to at least gum up the works.
Even if a stadium bill emerges between now and Feb. 15, the Vikings after that date will have lost what's been an important bargaining chip. "Who knows what might happen when the lease ends" will shift to "See you at the Metrodome in September." If so, the many lawmakers who don't share the urgency that team boosters have worked so hard to cultivate will have newfound cover to wait another year or two. Or three.
"We don't want to rush into this, boxing ourselves in and putting ourselves in a corner," House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said Friday. Dean said he's worried that a premature stadium vote might actually fail -- potentially putting the state at even greater risk of losing the team.
Bagley refused to speculate what would happen once the relocation deadline has passed. "We're 100 percent focused on getting a stadium solution," he said.
Mondale said there's no real date by which the team must notify their Metrodome landlords that they intend to play their next season there. "Frankly, it's been the assumption that they will," he said.
But those who worry the most about the team leaving -- Vikings fanatics -- take no comfort in knowing they can at least count on a 2012 season in Minnesota.
"What concerns me the most is that Zygi Wilf could say, `Fine, you've got me for another year -- but after that we're just done with it,"' said Cory Merrifield, who launched the grassroots lobbying group SavetheVikes.org. "Without a lease, the Vikings are essentially free agents."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)