MINNEAPOLIS — The last time a college men’s basketball champion was crowned in this city, fans walked through a neighborhood that was charmless and nameless in order to sit in a nondescript domed stadium to see the Duke Blue Devils cut down the nets.
The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a marshmallow surrounded by parking lots, hosted Final Fours in 1992 and 2001. By 2008, it was deemed obsolete for the occasion and Minneapolis lost its bid to land another.
The decade since has brought a remarkable transformation to the rapidly growing city, and especially to the area now known as Downtown East. U.S. Bank Stadium has risen where the Metrodome was laid to rest, occupying the same footprint but hardly the same plane. The $1.1 billion glass-enclosed marvel dominates a new urban landscape and will welcome 70,000 spectators when the Final Four is contested Saturday and Monday.
U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis played host to the Super Bowl last yera and will be the site of the NCAA Final Four this weekend. (Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn, USA TODAY Sport)
The stadium, under construction in 2014 when Minneapolis won the right to host the 2018 Super Bowl and this Final Four, has helped spur $600 million in development surrounding it. That includes two office buildings, commercial, retail, housing and even a park.
They’ve razed the parking lots and put up a paradise.
“It’s still transforming,” Chuck Lutz said of the Downtown East neighborhood. “The stadium was the catalyst. Another major catalyst for that area was there was just no place else for downtown Minneapolis to expand. All other sides of downtown are constrained. So the development pressure certainly was heading east.
“What we didn’t want to do is create another downtown. So we wanted more of a neighborhood feel as opposed to another neighborhood of skyscrapers, because we already have that.”
Still, Lutz vividly recalls how “contentious” the process was. Taxpayers were on the hook for about half of the costs. The stadium project passed the Minneapolis City Council on a 7-6 vote.
“There is some hangover. There are some people that are still opposed to the stadium,” Lutz said. “Some of these feelings will never die.”
Over the past 20 years, the city has built seven major sports venues. Adjusted for inflation, these stadiums together cost $2.5 billion, and Minnesota taxpayers shelled out 56 percent of it: $1.4 billion.
Lutz has worked for Minneapolis since 1986, now as part of its Department of Community Planning and Economic Development.
He remembers well the wasteland that surrounded the Metrodome, a building that housed the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Twins from 1982 to 2013 but never inspired any nightlife — or life at all, really — around it. There was one bar nearby, Hubert’s. And it didn’t survive the redevelopment of the past five years.
Minneapolis has added 40,000 residents since 2000, its largest rate of growth since a post-World War II surge saw it reach the apex of its population at 522,000 in 1950. It’s just north of 422,000 now, with the city having a stated goal of getting to 500,000 by 2025. Lutz thinks it will get there.
The growth in Downtown East has helped. There are now about 2,000 apartment and condominium units in the area, Lutz said. The condos, along the river, have attracted a great deal of empty-nesters. The apartments tend to be populated by young adults.
In 2001, basketball fans would have been hard-pressed to navigate the three blocks from the stadium to the Mississippi. It’s much more accessible now, with trails and the two-square-block Gold Medal Park.
The city is embracing the river and its heritage as the “Flour Milling Capital of the World.” The Mill City Museum, opened in 2003 near the Metrodome, is a popular example.
“That’s what we are,” Lutz said simply. “We are here because of the river.”
All of this was important in securing the chance to host the Final Four, said Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis, a key figure in preparing the bid.
“We’re selling a compact urban experience,” Tennant said, pointing out that fans can walk or take light rail lines from their hotels to the games and all the ancillary events associated with a Final Four.
The bid to host the Final Four came with a guarantee of 10,000 hotel rooms within a 30-minute radius of downtown. But even fans farther out won’t need to rent cars to get around.
That is because Minneapolis is now linked by light rail routes that didn’t exist in 2001. The blue line goes to the airport and the Mall of America; the green line connects downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul. Both will bring fans right to the stadium’s large, rotating doors.
It is why the new stadium was built on the same spot as the old, even though the construction forced the Vikings to spend two seasons playing on the University of Minnesota campus. The Twins had departed for their new $522 million Target Field in 2010.
Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. (Photo: David Berding, USA TODAY Sports)
The city is expecting 94,000 visitors for the Final Four; there were an estimated 125,000 for the Super Bowl.
Those visitors, if they take the time, will notice a city becoming more diverse by the day. The Scandinavian influence is still present in long-standing places like the American Swedish Institute. But there is also a Somali Museum of Minnesota that opened in 2011. The largest concentration of the Somali population is a half-mile east of U.S. Bank Stadium.
On the south side of Minneapolis, a growing Latino community has transformed East Lake Street with a global market and other shops.
“Those populations have settled in all parts of the city, bringing new shops, new restaurants, and really breathing life into corridors that were struggling before,” Lutz said. “A lot of people think of Minneapolis in old terms, largely all-white and Scandinavian. While that population still exists, it certainly is not representative of the city any longer because we are multicultural.”
The Twin Cities and their suburbs are home to 18 Fortune 500 companies. UnitedHealth Group is the largest with 2017 revenues of $201 billion. Target is the most ubiquitous, its name and logo on the basketball arena and baseball stadium and nearly anywhere else you look.
Then there is U.S. Bancorp, which sits at No. 122 on the Fortune 500 and paid $220 million to have its name attached to the shiny new stadium for 25 years. The company, and the city, is betting this won’t be the last Final Four under the stadium's translucent roof. The stadium is designed to offer views of downtown Minneapolis. Unlike the last time the Final Four stopped here, there is actually something to see.