United Properties says pro soccer is an option for a site it may develop near the Minneapolis Farmers Market — a sign that the Minnesota Vikings may have a serious rival in their bid to bring Major League Soccer to their new home in Downtown East.
"We are very early in the process," a United Properties spokeswoman said.
The acknowledgement by the commercial real estate developer comes less than a week after Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber told the Chicago Tribune that his league hoped to expand to Minneapolis soon.
"The Midwest is a priority," Garber said in a visit to Chicago last Friday. "Minneapolis is a big priority for us. We have two prospects that are hoping to join the league as soon as they can ... I'm hopeful we can resolve our lack of coverage in the Midwest with another team soon."
The Vikings won exclusive rights to put an MLS team in the $1 billion stadium under construction now in Minneapolis.
But Sports Illustrated reported earlier this month that another sports owner in the Twin Cities, Minnesota United Football Club owner and former UnitedHealth Group CEO Bill McGuire, met with Garber and MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott in September.
SI also said the meeting included Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Minnesota Twins executive Jim Pohlad. Pohlad's family also owns United Properties, the developer looking at the site near the farmers market.
United Properties wouldn't identify the site or provide any more details on its possible plan.
But two sources familiar with the group's search said the site is an eight-acre commercial property sandwiched between Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, Sharing and Caring Hands and The Fish Guys, a wholesale seafood operation.
That property is owned by Bob Salmen, who could not be reached for comment.
The McGuire-led group, according to one of the sources, also has been looking at land near the Mall of America in Bloomington.
If the site by the farmers market is in play, that could mean yet another professional sports stadium in the works for downtown Minneapolis, even as the Vikings stadium is poised to open in 2016 and a major renovation is underway at the Target Center.
It isn't clear what a soccer-specific stadium might look like. The most recent MLS stadium to open in the U.S., BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, cost about $95 million to build. In California, the San Jose Earthquakes are set to open another stadium next year. It reportedly cost just $60 million.
The potential sports coalition that may be looking to bring soccer to the west side of downtown was quiet about the prospect.
McGuire's Minnesota United club plays in the North American Soccer League, a smaller league than MLS.
"We are focused on bringing a professional soccer championship to Minnesota this year," said United president Nick Rogers. "We have shown this is a great market for professional soccer and our fans have proved that week in and week out by attending our games."
"We're focused on winning a championship in Minnesota this year," Rogers said in a statement. "We know this is a great market and our fans know that. They show up in droves at our games."
The Twins declined to comment on the matter.
Timberwolves Chief Marketing Officer Ted Johnson deferred comment to Minnesota FC United.
The Vikings showed no sign of backing down to their potential cross-town sports rivals.
"We've had an ongoing effort for several years, kind of coming to a head here as we continue our bid for an MLS franchise to play in the new Vikings stadium," said team vice president Lester Bagley. "The stadium was designed for MLS from day one."
Adding to the urgency: In talks with the MLS, the Vikings have pledged to install a "house reduction mechanism that will bring the capacity down to between 20,000 and 25,000 seats to make it more intimate," Bagley said.
Stadium officials say such a system would likely add millions of dollars to the stadium's cost, and the Vikings would have to pay for it — and that it would be best to add it to the project while it is still early in the construction process.
The stadium is about 25 percent complete now. Bagley said his team may unveil details of the plan in the next month.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, said she thought the new Vikings stadium remained the best option for top-tier pro soccer in Minnesota.
"The Legislature was very clear that they would like to see another tenant in our building, and try to leverage the investment that the state and the city have already made," Kelm-Helgen said.
She also said that that her agency was counting on about $350,000 in rent from an MLS team — about $20,000 a game for a 17-game home schedule.
Adding to the complications, there is no clear financing mechanism yet for a stadium project, beyond money from a soccer team itself.
The state of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis have pledged a combined $498 million to the new Vikings stadium.
The city has also pledged $48.5 million for an upgrade to its own Target Center, a project that may have to be trimmed for financial reasons related to rising construction costs.
DFL state Rep. Raymond Dehn, who represents the area, said he hadn't yet been asked about potential state support for the project.
A senior DFLer, St. Paul state Rep. Alice Hausman, who chairs the bonding committee, said she thought another stadium would be a hard sell at the Capitol.
"I really had hoped that this was the direction this would go," she said of a potential coalition between the ownership of the Twins and a Major League Soccer franchise. But she thinks they need to look elsewhere for financial help: "I do think there is great stadium fatigue at the state."
The financing for the Vikings stadium has also been a contentious topic in the gubernatorial race between first term DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and his rival, GOP nominee and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.
However, one prospective financier for soccer remains: Hennepin County.
Commissioner Mike Opat confirmed that he has talked about the prospects of bringing pro soccer to Minneapolis, talks that have included MLS officials.
"I do know they are going to have an expansion announcement, and I have had a couple of discussions with Minnesota United, but we don't have anything firm. I think they have an interesting idea, but ... there's no clear proposal, and there's nothing I've been able to discuss with my colleagues, but we've had a couple of background kinds of conversations."
Mark Stenglein, a former Hennepin County commissioner who's now a consultant for Covanta, the company that operates the county's garbage burner, says he thinks he knows how it might work.
Covanta would like to locate an organic digester to divert compostable waste out of the HERC. Stenglein said Covanta would like a new facility, "as close as they could, because they'd be the managers of the organic digester."
He says that new facility could be co-located with a soccer stadium, even buried underneath it. That could be a mechanism for a county investment in the project.
Opat said that wasn't impossible, but that it wasn't on the table now. "We haven't had any discussions in any detail, even conceptually about that," he said.