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No introductions necessary for Wilf

Vikings' new owner gets much anticipated league approval

By Sean Jensen

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey real estate developer Zygmunt "Zygi" Wilf stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight as the next owner of the Vikings on Wednesday.

Wilf, the New Jersey land developer was introduced to the media by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue moments after his group's $600 million bid was unanimously approved by owners on the last day of their spring meeting here.

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The usually reserved and private Wilf did not shy away from the attention, declaring he will never move the Vikings to another state, -- as his predecessor Red McCombs threatened to do, -- and that he wants to create a chilly home-field advantage by building his team an open-air stadium.

McCombs, who bought the team in 1998 for $246 million, grew frustrated by his inability to secure public financing for a new stadium and openly lobbied to move the team to Los Angeles. Wilf said public financing will be necessary for a new stadium, venue, but he said moving the team is not an option no matter what happens.

"No way," he said. "To me, this is not a matter of economics. It's a matter of passion."

Wilf wants open roof

Wilf, 55, said his real estate background and experience working with governmental government leaders will would help him garner public funding for a roofless stadium.

"I'm a strong believer of an open venue," he said. "I think that it is a good advantage to have some of the other teams come up to our nice, warm Minnesota winters, so they can enjoy playing football up where it hurts, ala Green Bay."

Wilf, though, was diplomatic or and evasive on other topics. He avoided questions about how far along he was in exploring stadium sites in Anoka County, saying only, "I am in negotiations with various owners, not just from Blaine, but from other areas."

He deflected a question about the Vikings' offseason drama -- specifically head coach Mike Tice's Super Bowl ticket scandal, Randy Moss' trade to Oakland and Onterrio Smith's drug suspension -- to McCombs, who will own the team until the sale officially closes. Vikings President president Gary Woods said that should happen some time between June 8 and June 15. June 8-15.

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McCombs had been shopping the Vikings since spring of 2002, when he hired JPMorgan J.P. Morgan Chase to find a buyer. On Feb. 14, he announced a purchase agreement with a group led by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler, but the dynamic and depth of the ownership group changed before the deal was sealed.

Fowler switched from general to limited partner, and Wilf added his brother, Mark, and cousin, Leonard Wilf. East Coast real estate developers Alan Landis and David Mandelbaum also are limited partners. Not in the group is Twin Cities car dealer Denny Hecker, who was closely involved with Fowler's original group.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Fowler said Hecker could eventually might join the group.

"He was very helpful," Fowler said. "None of us knew anything about your city. I would think at some point in and time, Denny would be involved."

Wilf said all partners will be "active," adding that he planned to establish a residence in the Twin Cities within the "next couple of years."

Fowler's new role

Although he is no longer the general partner, which would have made him the league's first African-American owner, Fowler was praised by Wilf for his diligence in putting the group together.

"I think it's Zygi's time now," Fowler said. "I don't think it's fair to rain on his parade. He's been great to me. He's invited me into the family. I just think, personally, it's time to let him do his thing."

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Asked about why the bid didn't work with Fowler as lead partner, Tagliabue said, "It was a question of liquidity, not really a question of Reggie Fowler's net worth.

NFL rules require a lead investor to own 30 percent of the team, which would have required $150 million up front. Instead, Fowler's stake is between $30 million and $50 million.

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said he is confident the new ownership group can make significant strides toward landing the Vikings a new stadium. Although he is friends with McCombs, McNair, a friend of McCombs, said Wilf could spur change in the Twin Cities.

"I hate to see Red go, but we welcome the new owner," said McNair, a member of the NFL's finance committee. "The fact that his expertise is in the real estate business, he will be able to use the stadium as a focal point (of a development). The dynamics change."

But Wilf's purchase will have little impact on prospects for the state to help pay for a Viking stadium, the Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum and a spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Wednesday.

"The basic dynamics of the stadium discussion remain the same," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung, the Pawlenty spokesman.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he has spoken twice with Wilf and was assured the Vikings in Minnesota would stay in Minnesota.

"It's certainly not on the agenda for the special session," Sviggum said of a Vikings stadium.

McClung and Sviggum said Wilf's preference for an open-air stadium would not affect the stadium issue, debate, but Steve Novak, government services manager for Anoka County, said a roofless stadium doesn't work for Blaine or Minnesota.

"You wouldn't have Billy Graham Crusades or Rolling Stones concerts or Final Fours there," Novak said.

However, Novak said, Wilf sees the $600 million stadium project as the county does--the heart of a larger $1.6 billion complex of shops, offices and homes, which has been the cornerstone of the Anoka County proposal all along.

"Now we are working with a developer who also owns the team," Novak said.

During his news conference, Wilf appeared -- as he later confirmed -- nervous about being thrust behind a podium in a room full of reporters. Since becoming part of Fowler's group, Wilf had gone to great lengths to avoid talking to reporters, but and he even dodged cameras as much as possible for most of Wednesday morning.

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