As chair of the government agency charged with overseeing one of the largest, most controversial projects in state history, Michele Kelm-Helgen has experienced her share of drama.
She has served as the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority’s (MSFA) calm public face through the never-ending hoopla surrounding the construction of the new Vikings stadium. There have been numerous legal challenges regarding the stadium’s financing and a separate month-long probe into the finances and background of the Vikings owners, which culminated in a series of marathon negotiating sessions with the team to keep the project on schedule.
“I knew that the schedule and deadlines and all of those things would be issues when I took the job,” said Kelm-Helgen. “But we clearly have had some things to deal with that I hadn’t planned to deal with.”
For dealing with those unplanned obstacles MSFA commissioners unanimously voted Jan. 17 to give her a $25,000 raise, bumping her annual salary up to $127,000.
“It seems to me she’s done a pretty darn good job under very difficult circumstances,” said Downtown Council President Steve Cramer, who has a similar job chairing the Minnesota Ballpark Authority.
Kelm-Helgen with Downtown state Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-59B)
Deep political roots
Kelm-Helgen’s grandfather managed Hubert Humphrey’s first Minneapolis mayoral campaign and was the chairman of the state Democratic party in the 1940s.
Her father moved the family from Montgomery, the small town about 50 miles south of Minneapolis where Kelm-Helgen grew up, to Chaska right before her senior year of high school after he became chief of staff for Gov. Wendell Anderson.
She ended up working for Anderson while attending college at St. Catherine, and after graduating she worked for Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstede.
Then she moved to the private sector, working in sales, marketing and finance for 25 years while raising three kids — a boy and twin girls — in Chaska. One of her daughters is now the communications director for US Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“[Kelm-Helgen’s] expertise and relationships in politics have clearly served her well,” said Minnesota Vikings Vice President of Public Affairs Lester Bagley. “She’s got the governor’s ear, and confidence, which has been important.”
Kelm-Helgen jumped back into the public realm in 2006 when she was hired as chief of staff for the Minnesota state Senate, and later moved to the governor’s office to serve as Gov. Mark Dayton’s deputy chief of staff in 2010.
But for all of her connections at the state capitol, she says her job chairing three different task forces in charge of redrawing school boundaries for the Eastern Carver County School District provided her the best experience for dealing with stadium issues.
“If you want to find an issue that drives wedges into communities, it’s changing school boundaries. It’s very emotional,” she said. The district was rapidly growing and during her time on the task force, and later as chair of the Eastern Carver County School Board, three new elementary schools, a middle school and a high school were built.
“What I learned there, and something I apply every day, is that people need to know that you’re very open and up front about what’s going on, that they have an opportunity to state their opinions and given a legitimate forum for talking about what they think should happen,” she said.
Kelm-Helgen signs the stadium use and development agreements with MSFA President Ted Mondale
Selling a controversial project
Kelm-Helgen’s diminutive frame belies her steady, calculating nature. She has proven to be a polished public speaker, honed over hundreds of media interviews and public meetings.
“I’ve known her for a very long time,” said Bagley, who spent much of the last decade lobbying at the state Capitol for a new stadium. “She’s determined, strong and very thorough … which is good when you’re building a billion dollar stadium.”
Her job, in large part, is to inform and engage with a largely skeptical public — which is paying $498 million for the project — about the benefits of the new stadium. When she explains why she thinks the stadium will be good for Minnesota, she lays out three main talking points:
A new stadium will spur scores of new investments in the area. It’s already happened with the recently-approved five-block Ryan Development on the west side of the stadium.
A new stadium will help attract huge events, like the Superbowl, or the Final Four, to Minneapolis, which bring massive economic benefits.
The Vikings only have control over the stadium for 10 days out of the year. On the remaining days it will serve as a world-class event space for a variety of public uses.
“Obviously most Minnesotans will never come to a Vikings game, but they will come to watch the state high school soccer championships, or state football championships, or marching band competitions … and that’s only available because we’ve got an NFL team paying us big dollars,” said Kelm-Helgen. The Vikings are paying the MSFA $10 million annually to help pay for operating expenses.
She said she expects the vitriol over the amount of taxpayer money committed to the project to wane and excitement to build as construction continues. Earlier this month she moved out of her small, ground-floor office at the Metrodome to make room for the growing construction site.
“You’ve got to be calm,” she said. “There’s so much stress in the things that we’re doing and you just need to show people that we’re moving from A to B to C, and that yeah it’s tricky, and it’s difficult, but this is the path we’re taking and we’ll get there.”