Inside the Vikings’ move to Eagan

By Mike Kaszuba

Through last fall and into this past summer, city officials in Eagan raced to line up the necessary approvals so that the Minnesota Vikings could build a new headquarters and practice complex along Interstate 494.

Public Record Media, a St. Paul non-profit, reviewed more than a thousand pages of public documents, and found that the city was as impatient as the Vikings to move quickly.  And – like team representatives – city officials privately complained when other public agencies had questions that threatened to slow the project.

According to internal e-mails, the city and the Vikings even discussed a desire to keep the team’s request for a relatively small public subsidy away from the media.  Along the way, the Vikings made sure the city knew what the team’s arrival in Eagan might mean.

Public relations value

In a “project narrative” prepared by the team, the Vikings told city officials that the new headquarters (the team would be moving from nearby Eden Prairie) would provide an “intangible, but valuable, public relations and marketing value to Eagan and [give the city] the right to call itself the ‘Home of the Vikings’ Headquarters.’”

The Vikings’ arrival in Eagan, the team told the city, would be a “unique opportunity.”  A 33-page city briefing report prepared in April for Eagan’s planning commission outlined the project’s benefits, and noted that the Vikings’ cheerleaders would also train at the new complex.  The city report added that the Vikings “are [also] considering developing a dance and cheer academy for kids.”

For Eagan – an already-sprawling suburb with more than 65,000 people – the Vikings’ arrival was big news.  In an e-mail written just before the project received an initial green light in late April, the city’s assistant engineer stated that a top city official “wants Vikings stuff sooner than later because it’s so big.”

Speed of project took toll

But by late May, the stress of moving so quickly showed on the city’s staff.   “We need to take a break from all things Vikings,” wrote Russ Matthys, the city’s public works director.  “I, and others, need to focus on other things for a bit that have been neglected due to the Vikings invasion.”

The “invasion” nonetheless persisted – as did the city’s push to make the plan a reality.  When Metropolitan Council analysts had questions in early May about the project’s impact on traffic – calling a traffic impact study “inadequate,” and ultimately forcing a one-month delay on a City Council vote – at least one high-ranking city official and a Vikings consultant vented that it would unnecessarily slow things down.

Although both the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Dakota County had raised similar concerns, the Met Council’s entrance into the discussion altered the timeline.  “Can we get traffic analysis that is broader than what you’ve provided?” a Met Council official asked in a May 6th e-mail.

Reaction to Met Council traffic study request

The request led Eagan’s community development director, Jon Hohenstein, to vent his frustration by e-mail.  “And they wonder why cities and counties dislike them,” Hohenstein wrote in a May 12th message.  He found a sympathetic partner in John Shardlow, a consultant for the Vikings.  “This is complete make work, a waste of time and money and doesn’t accomplish anything,” he wrote in an e-mail the same day.   Shardlow added that mid-level managers at the Met Council likely “don’t [want to] miss the opportunity to hold the Vikings accountable.  [But it’s] none of their business.”

Meanwhile, one of the city’s own consultants cautioned that the criticism of the Met Council was too harsh.  “I’m a little concerned about the comments about Met Council that are surfacing in this [e-mail] thread,” said Beth Bartz, a city consultant, in a May 13th e-mail.  She said she was not surprised by the Met Council’s questions and added that “I do not believe that Met Council staff are unreasonable in asking for further verification that there is a feasible and fiscally responsible alternative available if ‘worst case’ traffic volumes are realized.”

On May 13th Patrick Mascia, a lawyer for the Vikings, told city officials that the team had directly contacted Met Council chair Adam Duininck to speed things up.  “We spoke to Adam Duininck.  [He] is working to help us resolve this and believes our traffic mitigation plan sounds reasonable.”  Hohenstein, the city’s community development director, wrote in a follow-up e-mail that, “Pat and company went straight to the top.”

City Council approval

A month later, with the Met Council satisfied, the Eagan City Council voted unanimously for the proposal – a sprawling attempt to build not only the team’s headquarters, but also housing, retail and possibly hotels on nearly 200 acres that once served as the corporate home of Northwest Airlines.

Ever since the Vikings’ proposal to move to Eagan became public, the city and the team had also faced a recurring, unanswered question:  Would the Vikings – a professional sports franchise that Forbes magazine valued at $1.59 billion — want city money for its headquarters and practice facility?

Questions about public funding

For most of the past four years, the team had fought criticism for the large public subsidy used to build its nearly 30-story-tall stadium in downtown Minneapolis, a $1.1 billion project that includes (at least) $498 million in public money.

As the Eagan project moved toward approval, the Vikings made known to the city that they wanted some public funds for their practice facility as well.  The team had requested financing assistance to convert a private parkway into a public street as part of the widening and improvement of that roadway.  Compared to the downtown Minneapolis stadium, the amount was relatively small.  However, a city official informed the Vikings that he was wary of making the request public too early.

In a May 17th e-mail to the team, Eagan communications director Tom Garrison noted that in a city reply to a reporter’s question, “you’ll notice one thing intentionally missing … [there] is no mention of the Vikings application for public improvements.  As your application for assistance has not formally come in yet, the answer below [to the reporter] is accurate as of today.”

“To include it would set off a story focus on $$ ahead of the necessary approvals,” Garrison told the team.

The city’s reluctance to dwell on the Vikings’ relatively small public subsidy request continued into June, as the City Council gave initial approval to the project.  In a set of written suggestions on how to answer media questions, city officials again downplayed the public assistance issue.  The suggested response for city officials was accompanied by the heading, “internal resource only for consistent messaging and only if asked these questions.”  The suggestion read:

“The Minnesota Vikings did not ask for, nor were they granted any financial assistance to come to Eagan.  Utilizing past practice with other developments in Eagan, the City is paying some street and utility improvement costs, as might be expected.”

Announcing the project

The Vikings had made their interest in moving to Eagan public a year earlier – in August of 2015.  At that time, city officials indicated that they would approach the project deliberately.

The Vikings issued a statement on August 21st of last year stating that the team had signed a purchase agreement for the Eagan property.   However, in a statement issues 18 days later, on September 8th, Eagan officials said that the city could only “confirm that it has had informal discussions with the Minnesota Vikings regarding their interest” in the property.  The city’s statement noted that Eagan had “not received any formal application from the Vikings.”

Two days later – on September 10th — the city again issued a statement, saying that “while the City of Eagan is excited about the prospect of welcoming the Vikings organization to the community, both the City and the Vikings are in the early stages of considering the opportunities for the site.”

Despite these public statements, the Vikings were already moving quickly – and so was the city.  According to public records obtained by PRM, the team had filed an application on August 31st for a comprehensive guide plan amendment, and had agreed to put $9,000 in escrow to begin the approval process.

By September 17th, the city had produced an 11-page report – with 10 pages of attachments – that recommended approval of the comprehensive guide plan amendment the Vikings were requesting.

Concerns about speed

As the complex project wound its way toward a series of city approvals, some were concerned that things were moving too quickly.

“I’m getting nervous about the timeline here,” city consultant Beth Bartz wrote in an April 28th e-mail.  At the time, city officials were hoping to get the City Council to act on the project before the end of May. “We’re going to have less than 24 hours to review and approve for publication the [environmental], mitigation plan,” she stated.

When the project was delayed for a month,  Mike Ridley, the city’s planner, stated that everyone should “take a step [back], take a deep breath” regarding the Met Council’s objections.  Ridley also stated that, “the May 23 [City Council] meeting is off the table so we’ve got time to figure out the best approach.”

According to records obtained by PRM, Eagan’s attorney Robert Bauer seemed to become increasingly concerned with pushing back on aspects of the Vikings’ proposal.  In a May 16th e-mail, he told the Eagan city administrator that “[we] cannot approve the [environmental plan] on June 7th if the objection by the Met Council is still pending.”

In another e-mail, this time on May 25th, the city attorney said that the team’s plan for “the conference center/hotel must contain at least 100 guest rooms.”  And on the same day, Bauer also wrote that the city should move cautiously on further building permits for the team “until the above-ground physical construction has begun on the Vikings’ Headquarters facility.”

The continuing discussion of the project’s impact on traffic – which now stood as a possible roadblock – drew the ire of Patrick Mascia, the Vikings’ lawyer.

“[We] need to recognize that traffic counts [in the general area] are just not generated by our development,” he wrote.  If Eagan was allowed to withhold approval for future development on the site and require the Vikings to instead wait for more traffic studies, said Mascia, “[t]his is unacceptable.”  The Vikings’ attorney added that the team needed to “understand our future exposure here and cannot have the city holding a hammer over [the team’s] head.”

When a city consultant rewrote language to address the issue, Mascia noted that he was pleased.  The Vikings, he wrote in an e-mail, would fund “our share of these costs” but that in the future “everything is within the City’s, County’s and MNDOT’s hands and off-site traffic mitigation will not hold up any of our approvals.”

“City staff, are we on the same page here?” Mascia asked.  Minutes later Matthys, the city’s public works director, wrote back: “That would be my understanding as well.”

Joint work on the project

Despite differences on some issues, the city and the Vikings teamed up to address a variety of snags that arose.  City officials were frustrated when a state archeologist wrote, saying that she had issues with protecting historical aspects of the project site.  “This could throw the [environmental approval] timing off by 30 business days,” noted Ridley, the city’s planner.

Shardlow, the Vikings’ consultant, agreed: “The new director is apparently a 19th Century history enthusiast.  Our [a]rcheologist said if they do what she is asking they will document that the inhabitants of the farmstead used bottles and [old tools] and [it will] reveal nothing.”  Shardlow then asked Bartz, the city’s consultant: “Are you confident we can essentially ignore this request?”

At the same time, the city’s community development director was upset when Eagan resident Lynda Retterath, whose land was near the Vikings’ property, wondered whether the project might be too big and might upset the area’s atmosphere despite it being near both an interstate freeway and the flight path for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

“Tranquil?  In the primary flight path?  The only residential properties between an interstate and a business park?  It’s a hard argument to buy,” Hohenstein wrote in an April 26th e-mail.

Issues with graphics display 

While the city was enthusiastic about the Vikings arrival, some officials continued to worry about one other major issue:  the Vikings’ request to deviate from Eagan’s sign ordinance in order to erect an elaborate, high-tech graphics display – using state-of-the-art “video mapping” and “spatial augmented reality” – that would cover half of each side of their practice facility.

The largest billboard face in the city to date measured 672 square feet, a city report said.  What the team wanted, the report added, was “substantially beyond” what the city had ever before permitted.  The report noted that what the Vikings wanted would be like putting 26 billboards on one structure.

“[T]he typical [billboard] is visible/legible up to an eighth of a mile away, so something 15-20 times as big would likely be visible from whatever distance up the road the building would be visible,” Hohenstein explained in an email on April 26th.

Even after the city moved closer to approving the Vikings’ proposal, there were doubts about the signage.  One city planning commission member, Jane Vanderpoel, said she was interested in restrictions that would help “keep their facility from looking [like] something in Las Vegas … I tried hard to convince the rest of the [city planning commission] to drop the projection technology proposal but no luck,” Vanderpoel added.  “I really hope the [City Council]/Mayor don’t buy into that. I think it will be a terrible distraction for drivers on [Interstate] 494.”

“They say they won’t use it for advertising, but I don’t believe them,” Vanderpoel wrote.  “That side of the [practice facility] is huge – the equivalent of more than 50 of our biggest billboards!  And it’s 10 – 12 stories high!”

Dan Piper, another city planning commission member, also wondered about the city’s actions. “Were we crazy on the signage?” he asked in an April 27th e-mail to a city official.  “The Vikings stuff seemed more artistic to me than advertising … [a] celebration of a community asset, etc. … [But] it seemed a little strange to approve the Vikings [special sign proposal] right after we rejected” an unrelated sign proposal, he said.

“Are we going to be in trouble later if some business owner says they want etched names of their business [or projected graphics] on 50% or more of their buildings in addition to typical building signage?” Piper added.

After the city’s planning commission gave initial approval to the project in April, the city’s community development director gave advice on how to present what had happened to Garrison, the city’s communications director.  Hohenstein wrote that the city should state that “public comment was minimal and very localized.”

In the end, the city agreed to work with the team on an over-arching proposal for an “integrated graphics/projection mapping signage” agreement.

Project opening

In August, city officials meanwhile joined the Vikings and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell at a groundbreaking ceremony on the site.  “The Vikings team headquarters and practice facility in Eagan opens up a whole new gateway to the northeast part of the city, and we are proud that this flagship franchise will now call Eagan home,” said the city’s mayor, Mike Maguire.

In a glass case inside city hall, a purple Vikings jersey was hung with the number “1” and the word “Eagan” in large white letters on the back.