No Place Like Dome

I was recently reading the Wikipedia entry on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome to see if I could learn anything about the construction of its fabric roof.

I was listening to a Twins game where the announcers were talking about a super high pop fly that got lodged in the roof’s ventilation system and found its way out a few days later. They remarked that there are two layers to the roof, the outside being one made of Teflon coated fiberglass and the other being nothing more than an special acoustic curtain that hides a catwalk in between. All 580,000 pounds of the ceiling is supported by 20 high powered fans that “inflate” the dome to its billowy shape. The whole thing has a beauty to it that really has to be seen to be appreciated.

As I was reading the article I noticed one of the citations was to a book called Uncovering the Dome by none other than our very own state senator Amy Klobuchar. I thought, “Klobuchar wrote a book about the Dome?” Sure enough, she did… when she was 22. Her prize winning senior thesis at Yale was published in 1982 as an expose of Minnesota stadium politics. Her interest was in exploring how the funding and construction of the Metrodome served the public interest that made for some fascinating, and I must admit, very fun reading.

The book is like a time capsule that contains some timeless truths about the ongoing controversies concerning public funding of sports stadiums. Klobuchar is not sympathetic to the idea, but she does retain an objectivity that is praiseworthy considering how volatile the issue can be. Those that are old enough to remember the much loved Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington will know that the thought of moving the Vikings and Twins to comforts of indoors was a travesty. No more mud covered linebackers or lazy summer days under the sun were to be had. Both of the team’s owners felt the Minnesota weather was too harsh and unpredictable to allow their champions to endure. Playing outside in an outdated and corroding facility was simply uncouth for such up and coming franchises.

Klobuchar shows some impressive writing skills as she clearly spells out the perennial problems of professional sports teams and their persistent demands for better and better facilities. Every town would love to have a professional team, but not every town can have one. Their are only so many to go around and leagues will not expand to meet every wit and whim of the market. Klobuchar writes:

It is this “contrived scarcity” — this undersupply and excess demand–which serves as a backdrop to the contested issue of public subsidies for stadiums. To put it another way, there are more cities that want teams than there are teams for cities. Government leaders who either want to gain popularity by acquiring a franchise or are afraid of losing public support because a team abandons their community will make extremely accommodating financial offers, in the form of stadium subsidies, to coax million-dollar sports organizations to either remain in or move to their areas.

This gives the sports team an unfair negotiating advantage. The cities they reside in must build a stadium to keep them around. If they don’t they have the option of moving to a city that will build for them. The city that builds the stadium builds a permanent fixture. The team can move but the stadium has to stay, and it must be filled some other way or torn down by the people who live by it. So powerful is this advantage that even public opinion dead set against funding new facilities cannot persuade public officials from bending over backwards to accommodating the team’s owners.

The story of the Dome is a topsy-turvy tail of political maneuvering between Bloomington, St. Paul, and Minneapolis with all their quirks and idiosyncratic pride at stake. Minneapolis was an up and coming metropolis that styled itself after New York as the “Mini-Apple.” Good Ole’ St. Paul looked suspiciously on its cosmopolitan neighbor and felt threatened by its burgeoning sense of national confidence. Bloomington felt muscled out of the picture as it had played the role of host for the last 20 years of Minnesota sports. Rural towns and their folksy representatives felt it was all city slickin’ nonsense who even went so far to say that rural dwelling Minnesotans couldn’t find their way to Twin Cities (a cartoon lampoons one country bumpkin representative who publicly said his people would get lost on their way to Minneapolis. The sketch shows him making his argument at the Basilica rather than the Capitol). One idea pitched as a compromise offered funding for a portable stadium that could be inflated and deflated and moved about on semi trucks!

Of course, everyone who polled negatively about funding a stadium also expressed their desire for the teams to stay. The presence of professional sports teams is a serious quality of life issue that greatly enhances the entertainment options of the local fanfare. Major league sports is truly a public interest even if they are run much like a cartel that sits above the fray of antitrust laws. One businessman who tirelessly lobbied for a domed stadium Downtown was right when he said that Minneapolis would be like a “frozen Omaha” if the Twins and Vikings moved away.

And so the story of Minnesota politics begins with savvy business investors, gets bogged down in a cantankerous legislature, is signed by an optimistic governor, and then delegated to a commission who decides by a controversial 4-3 vote to build the Downtown Dome with no frills or expensive features. All for 55 million dollars. Under budget. And on time. There has never been a more paradigmatic example of a good process of stadium construction, and it was an absolutely brutal political process filled with contention and animosity.

Now that we are near the end of the Vikings and Twins 30 years lease on the Dome we are confronted much of the same issues with the Twins new Target Field and the Vikings wishes for an arena with a retractable roof. The Twins were lucky to get their stadium paid for, but the Vikings face an uphill battle. It was on the day the 35W Bridge collapsed that the Twins had their groundbreaking ceremonies (which were promptly canceled) and it is during one of the worst economies on record the Vikings have dug in their heels and demanded for public money. The idea of shelling out millions of dollars for a place where millionaires can play a kid’s game just doesn’t sit right in an era of unemployment and dilapidated bridges.

In my mind the Dome still has a role to play. Like and old Met loyalist I think it serves the Vikings well, and the complaints about not selling out lie entirely with the performance of the team. You do not sell out games by constructing a new stadium. You sell out by winning. As long as the team is willing to settle for back up quarterbacks and one and done playoff records, no one should be surprised that interest in building a new stadium amounts to nothing more than resound “meh.”

But if history is any indicator, Ziggy and the state of Minnesota will find a way to come together to serve the public interest even though the public has no willingness to pay for.

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5 thoughts on “No Place Like Dome

  1. If the Twins and legislature hadn’t have fooled around for years, they could have had a retractable roof stadium for significantly less money than what it cost to build their open air stadium. Originally, in the early 2000’s, it would have cost $400 million for a retractable roof stadium, but they screwed around for a couple years and the price of steel went way up and the idiotic open air stadium that they ended up with cost $600 million. I have yet to hear one Minnesotan say that it was wise to build an open air stadium, but I’ve personally heard hundreds say it was insanely stupid.

  2. April and even May this year has been pretty chilly, and if we ever make it back to the World Series, those games could be cold. But primarily, it really limits the options for outstate fans to come to games… if there is a chance of rain, a rural person won’t drive the couple of hours to get rained out. And rain is when farmers have off-days. A retractable roof wouldn’t have made it any less open-air, but it would have fit the state’s needs much better. If we were New York, that would be different, since a huge percentage of their fans come from within a few miles and couldn’t care less about rainouts. But in Minnesota, where the baseball team supports an entire region (Iowa and the Dakotas send their baseball fans here for games), it’s ludicrous that people were so short-sighted to not consider a huge portion of the potential stadium users.

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