By Mike Kaszuba
Three days prior to this year’s Super Bowl, the Minnesota Vikings hosted a private dinner at St. Paul’s Union Depot for some of the wealthiest people in the United States — the team owners of the National Football League.
Documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a Saint Paul-based non-profit, show how representatives of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority – the owners of the depot – lowered the rental price for the Vikings, and expressed frustration as the team pushed for additional concessions. The records also reveal how the train depot’s representatives may have lost negotiating leverage because they feared losing the Vikings event, and how the team pushed to keep details of the evening private.
Financial condition of Union Depot
In February of 2017 – a year before the Super Bowl game was played in Minnesota – negotiations between the depot and the Vikings had reached an important point, and came as the Union Depot was struggling financially. According to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press newspaper, the train depot cost $7.7 million a year to operate in 2015, while bringing in just $1.7 million in revenue. The 1920s-era Union Depot had been rehabilitated several years earlier with $243 million in taxpayer funds, and critics had questioned the large amounts of public money that had been spent on the project.
The depot’s financial dilemma was a backdrop to its negotiations with the Vikings. After Union Depot negotiators had sent the football team a breakdown of rental options, the Vikings’ chief operating officer replied, asking for the lowest price the depot would accept.
“As you know, I do not like to negotiate this way as we already told them that we needed their max rate,” Tannen Loge, the senior general manager representing the Union Depot, wrote to his colleagues in a February, 2017 e-mail.
But two weeks prior, Loge had expressed concern about losing the event. In an internal note dated February 13 he wrote, “Do we want to add the lowest number we would take with the knowledge that they might go elsewhere if it is too high?”
Union Depot lowers fee for Vikings event
The Vikings would eventually sign a contract giving the team wide-ranging access to the Union Depot for more than four days, starting at 7 a.m. Monday, January 29, and ending at noon on Friday, February 2. The 10-page contract obligated the Vikings to pay a $250,000 total event fee. Documents showed that the fee was lowered to $250,000 as the negotiations progressed.
Due to the possibility of another renter wanting to use the facility, the depot dropped its fee in an attempt to shorten the Vikings’ stay. In a February 2017 e-mail, Loge told the Vikings that if the team was out of the train depot by noon on the day after the dinner “we would be willing to reduce our flat rate from $300,000 to $250,000.”
A short time later, in a note to Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren, Loge appeared to be willing to go lower – in exchange for the Vikings’ shortened use of the train depot. “Kevin, you had asked the question of what would be our lowest number that we would accept and I have discussed this in depth with our team and the lowest number we would accept would be $213,600,” Loge wrote.
“This is the ‘all-in’ fee,” Loge added. The new price, however, did not give the Vikings access to the train depot until early Tuesday morning, January 30.
However, by mid-March of 2017, Loge appeared ready to drop the price again. “We agree to reduce the flat fee to $168,600,” he wrote in a March, 2017 note. Eight days later, Loge reminded the Vikings that the latest reduced price was an additional “savings of $45,000” for the team. However, if the price was dropped to $168,600, Loge added, the Vikings could not have access to the train depot until Tuesday evening, Jan. 30.
On March 30, Loge then told the team that renting the facility from Monday morning through Friday – and not waiting until Tuesday to gain access – would bump the price back up to $250,000.
Warren remained firm in wanting the facility for most of the week. “We are ready to proceed forward,” he wrote to Loge on the same day. “Will need space from Monday morning until Friday at noon. Let me know how we can proceed.”
From the beginning, the football team wanted to rent the facility for most of the Super Bowl week, and wanted most of the train depot, too. “We were asked about the cost of renting the ‘whole building,’ ” Dawn Westermann, the sales manager representing Union Depot, wrote in a September, 2016 e-mail.
Vikings sought privacy for party venue, costs
Documents reveal that the Vikings were concerned about maintaining privacy for their event, even though it was being held in a public facility used by hundreds every day.
“We want to confirm that the Amtrak Lounge will be closed to the public, therefore prohibiting the public from entering our event space,” a representative of Imagine Party and Events Inc. wrote in a July, 2017 e-mail. Documents described the company as the New York-based event planners retained by the Wilf family – the owners of the Vikings.
Last-minute changes to the Union Depot rental agreement sought pledges that officials in Minnesota would keep the event as private as possible. “We covenant that the location in which the Event is held will be private and the public will be strictly prohibited from accessing the Event space,” the final contract language stated.
“All residents and transit customers will be directed to a location on the Property in such a way that they do not interfere with the Event,” the language noted.
The Vikings’ event planners were also concerned that invoices submitted by vendors – which might show how much the event cost – be kept private. Westermann told the team’s event planners in a January of 2017 that the invoices would likely not become public unless a specific request was made under Minnesota’s Data Practices Act. That “is highly unlikely,” she added.
Westermann then offered a tip to the Vikings’ event planners. “You could ask the vendors to sign a confidentiality agreement” not to otherwise disclose the invoices, she noted.
More event details
Privacy was one among several issues – big and small – that the Vikings negotiated with Union Depot. For instance, the team’s event planners asked that the depot’s vending machines be removed. Documents also show that they wanted the event’s chefs to be able to fry and sear food on the train depot’s loading dock.
“I think we should take parking LOT A for Monday – Friday morning. Can you add that in please,” Stacey Baumer, one of the Vikings’ event planners, wrote in an October 2017 e-mail. The team was granted control of the parking lot for more than four days, at a cost of $2,100.
The team won concessions on bringing in its own vendors for the event – rather than using the depot’s preferred vendors – and was not charged a standard, extra fee. The team was likewise allowed to change what rooms it wanted to use – trading the Gateway Conference Room (that typically rents for $500 a day) for the $1,000-a-day Red Cap Room – without incurring extra charges. An amendment to the rental agreement also gave the Vikings access to the Veterans Gallery and the Riverview Conference Room on the day of the event for no additional fee. Each room typically rents from $500 to $800 a day, according to a room rental chart provided to PRM.
Differences over whether the Vikings’ vendors should be charged a 15% commission – a standard charge at the train depot – were detailed in e-mail exchanges provided to PRM.
In a September 2016 e-mail, Westermann told the Vikings that any “non-preferred” vendors brought in by the team would be “required to pay a 15% commission to the building owners, due within 30 days after the event.” In a January 2017 e-mail message, Westermann reminded Baumer and her colleague at Imagine Party and Events – Debbie Wecker – that “the option to use outside vendors is there, but it has been at a 15% commission.”
The Vikings would balk at having its vendors pay the commission.
In a January, 2017 note, the Vikings’ event planners wrote, “Though it may be beneficial and useful to use preferred vendors in certain instances, we cannot be obligated to exclusively use preferred vendors because they may be unable to sufficiently perform the task at hand for such a large-scale event.”
“With the exception of CRAVE, our client would like a flat fee for décor and rental elements of the event regardless if it is a preferred or non-preferred vendor,” the event planners added.
Baumer and Wecker added that the Vikings were in effect being “penalized” by the 15% commission. “The nicer the party [the Vikings] throw, the more they pay the venue, even though that should be a fixed cost,” the event planners wrote.
Nearly three weeks later, Loge again told the Vikings’ event planners that the 15% non-preferred vendor commission still applied. But he added that if the Vikings would state “what their maximum number would be” for a flat fee, then “we will submit the number that you present to the building’s Owner to see if they would agree to that number.”
In the final agreement, the Union Depot agreed to the Vikings request. “No additional fees beyond the Event Fee will apply and be charged to licensee for the use of preferred or non-preferred vendors,” the final agreement stated. “Per the terms of this agreement, [the train depot’s owners] shall not solicit any commissions, fees, or amounts from any vendors servicing the Event.”
The long negotiations frustrated the team’s event planners, who noted that months of contract talks had occurred for what was essentially a one-night dinner party. “We have all been waiting patiently as the contract has taken almost 6 months to complete,” the event planners wrote to Tina Volpe, a Union Depot representative, in July of 2017.
According to the documents, the Vikings had first indicated in March 2016 they were interested in the venue. In a March 2016 e-mail, Union Depot events manager Eveline Martinez stated that the Wilf family had requested a tour of the train depot, and that the “owners are expected to be a part of [the] tour along with their Event Planners.”
Records show that the Vikings toured the facility in September of 2016. “We should be there in about 10 minutes. [The] plane was a little early,” the Vikings’ director of events Amy Anthony told train depot officials in a September 29 message.
“The building is so neat,” Westermann told Anthony, at one point. “I hope [the Vikings owners] think so, too!”