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Senator proposes Duluth's former U.S. Steel site for Vikings stadium

Shakopee made a stab at it. Arden Hills was tops for a while. Minneapolis has had two sites on the table. So why not Duluth?

State Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, sent Gov. Mark Dayton a letter Thursday urging him to consider the 500-acre former U.S. Steel mill site in Morgan Park as the site for a new stadium for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

Reinert said he knows the chances are slim or nil, but said the lack of consensus for any Twin Cities stadium site prompted his action.

"It seems as if the stadium is going to be the biggest issue we tackle down here this year, so I thought, why not throw our hat in?'' Reinert told the News Tribune. "If all this does is enhance Duluth as a prime (tourist) destination, then I'm fine with that."

Reinert's letter to Dayton included a litany of facts supporting the Duluth site.

Reinert notes that Duluth is only a little farther from the Twin Cities than Green Bay is from the Madison or Milwaukee metro areas. Duluth also expects to be connected to the Twin Cities by the proposed Northern Lights Express high-speed passenger rail line that could move Twin Cities fans to the game in about two hours. And Reinert also noted that Duluth already hosts about 3.5 million tourists a year, about half of whom are from the Twin Cities.

"They already come up here to visit; they would certainly come to watch football," he said.

Katharine Tinucci, Dayton's communications director, said Thursday afternoon that the governor has not yet seen the proposal.

"The governor has said time and again that he is site-neutral. ... But I can't comment on the proposal until we have seen it," Tinucci said.

Reinert's plan included almost no specifics on what the stadium would look like, how roads would be built to funnel 70,000 fans in and out of the big stadium nor how it would be paid for. It's expected that the local municipality that eventually lands the stadium will have to pay about a third of the nearly $1 billion cost.

So far, Reinert is on his own. No other Duluth official has signed the letter. And the Vikings hadn't heard of the plan until Thursday afternoon.

"We want to compliment leaders in Duluth for seeing that there is real value to hosting a Vikings stadium. We have great fans in Duluth," said Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of stadium development. "But we're three weeks into a 10-week legislative session and we are running out of time to start vetting new sites."

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he liked the concept but not the idea of diverting millions of local dollars to pay off bonds for the project.

"I'd love to have the Vikings stadium in Duluth. We have not seriously pursued the idea because of the need for a local match; it's simply not feasible for our region to come up with $300 million," Ness said. "I don't know any of the details of this concept, but if Roger sees a viable opportunity to build a stadium in Duluth without putting the tax burden on our residents, I'm all for it."

Reinert says he has a way to help finance a portion of the stadium, however. Reinert included in the letter to the governor his longstanding but so-far unsuccessful plan to allow Minnesota liquor stores to open on Sundays. That would bring the state an extra $10.5 million in taxes each year that's now going to neighboring states, Reinert said, revenue that could go to help pay back stadium debt. A Minnesota Department of Revenue estimate on Sunday sales tax projected far less in new revenue: only about $500,000 a year.

The former U.S. Steel/Atlas Cement site along the St. Louis River in western Duluth is an industrial superfund site. Much of the land has been cleaned up, but some parcels remain contaminated, as does some of the waterfront in the river.

The governor, state officials and Vikings owners are leaning toward a new stadium near the current site of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. That's the latest in a half-dozen sites considered in recent months for the new stadium that team owners said is needed for the team to be profitable and remain in Minnesota.

"The governor has told us to put a deal together with Minneapolis for the Metrodome site. Arden Hills is still out there for us. But Minneapolis is where we're looking now," Bagley said. "We have a bill 90 percent ready to go and we're working out the details on who operates the facility and who pays what share."

Bagley said it is "critical, urgent" for the Vikings' future in Minnesota to conclude the deal during the 2012 legislative session.