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Old 05-08-2005, 08:19 PM   #9
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Vikings: New wannabe owner talks
Randy Furst and Jay Weiner, Star Tribune
May 8, 2005

Zygmunt Wilf, the New Jersey developer who seems headed toward controlling the Minnesota Vikings, said Saturday that he won't move the team, that he won't reveal his net worth, that he's exploring stadium options and that Reggie Fowler is still his partner.

Breaking his silence after three months of dodging media inquiries, Wilf wouldn't confirm that he is in line to be the general partner of the NFL team, although multiple sources have told the Star Tribune that's the case.

But the 55-year-old lawyer and son of Holocaust survivors spoke like a man eager to own the state's most popular sports team.

"I love football," Wilf said in a telephone interview from his New Jersey home, adding he plans to trade in his New York Giants' season tickets, which he has owned for 30 years, for Vikings season tickets.

New Jersey business man Zygmunt Wilf playfully taps the back of Reggie Fowler's friend after a meeting at the Vikings headquarters in February. Wilf was in the Twin Cities last week meeting with land owners from Blaine and Lino Lakes about possible sites for a new Vikings stadium.

He didn't rule out seeking public funding for a new Vikings stadium.

"We are exploring various options," said Wilf. "We are in the middle of a learning curve and learning about stadium issues." Sources told the Star Tribune last week that Wilf has replaced Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler as the general partner of the group seeking to buy the Vikings. In the NFL, the general partner must own at least 30 percent of the franchise and then controls the team's operations.

Fowler has not returned phone calls, and Wilf declined on Saturday to confirm his role in the ownership group.

Wilf's son, John, said in a brief interview that an announcement by the National Football League is expected on Monday, but he would not say what that announcement would be. Zygmunt Wilf would not confirm that the NFL would say anything on Monday.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Saturday that the league is being kept apprised of the ownership matters.

Fowler's efforts to buy the Vikings have stumbled because he has been unable to come up with the necessary cash to satisfy the NFL's requirement for general partner status. The Star Tribune has reported on Fowler's attempted sale of his aviation business, SATCO, to an unknown Georgia-based financial services company called UBG. That deal hasn't been closed.

Asked if Fowler would remain a part of the ownership group, Wilf said, "Absolutely," adding: "The partners have had discussions regarding the structure of the ownership. The NFL is aware of ownership discussions and when this issue is resolved, this information will come from the NFL."

Retail developer
Wilf is the chief operating officer of Garden Commercial Properties, a firm that is the 19th-largest manager of retail development properties, according to the April 1, 2005, edition of a Retail Traffic, a business publication.

The privately held company claims to operate 30,000 apartment units. While the family-owned company may be well-financed, the NFL must determine whether Zygmunt Wilf's pockets are deep enough to win approval from NFL owners.

Asked about the value of his company and of himself personally, Wilf declined to give details.

"We have a family business that has operated over 50 years," he said. "I have made it a practice not to discuss financial issues."

Fowler's public reluctance to share details about his personal wealth created questions about his ability to buy the team.

Wilf said that the NFL has reviewed the group's finances.

"We are still in discussion regarding the structure of the group," Wilf said. "The NFL is fully aware of everything."

Asked if there was any chance he might buy the Vikings and move them to another state, Wilf said: "No way. That is not even an option. This is a storied franchise and our group is looking forward to making this a world-class organization. We are looking to build a world-class NFL franchise on and off the field for the fans in Minnesota. ... Our entire group and the Wilf family has a strong commitment to our community. We are very excited to extending that commitment to the Twin Cities area."

If Fowler had qualified to be general partner, he would have been in line to be the first black owner of an NFL team.

Ironically, Wilf's company has had at least one race discrimination complaint against it.

Wilf was asked about a lawsuit filed in 1999 by the Justice Department against Garden Homes Management, a company in which he and his family are involved. The suit alleged that three apartment complexes they owned in New Jersey refused to rent to blacks.

"It was an unfortunate incident that got corrected," Wilf said. "It is not a reflection of the way we operate our interests."

Fowler and current Vikings owner Red McCombs announced in February that the franchise would be sold. Fowler was to be the general partner. Wilf and three or four other men were to be limited partners.

Low-key approach
The reported Vikings sale price is $625 million.

Like Fowler, Wilf will need to come up with at least $150 million in cash for his share of the $625 million purchase price.

Other parts of his investment can be borrowed. Wilf has maintained a low profile, even though his company has been a major player in the real estate industry, especially in New Jersey. "He's become very successful with a low-key approach," said Vikings lobbyist Lester Bagley of Wilf's aversion to media coverage and preference for secret meeting. "He would prefer to be in the background. But I keep telling him that becoming an NFL team owner will not exactly put you in the background."

Said Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan: "He pretty much takes control of a meeting. He doesn't monkey around."

Wilf told people last week that he has been a New York Giants fan since he was a little boy and that, in 1969, at age 19, he missed the fabled Woodstock rock festival.


He attended a Giants preseason game against the Jets in New Haven, Conn. The game was played Aug. 17, 1969, one day before Woodstock ended.

Wilf also told Anoka County officials that he already knew the date that the Giants and Vikings are scheduled to meet this coming season: Nov. 13, in the Meadowlands, not far from his New Jersey home.

"He was already hyped up that the Vikings would beat the Giants," said Steve Novak, the stadium pointman for Anoka County.

Whether Wilf will own the Vikings by November, or at all, may be resolved at NFL owners' meetings in Washington, D.C. May 24 and 25.
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