MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Zygi Wilf beamed in the middle of the sharp-dressed group, a gold-painted shovel in his hands, a purple Vikings hard hat on his head and star running back Adrian Peterson by his side.
Finally, the work on Minnesota's polarizing and long-sought new stadium was under way.
After more than a decade of planning, dealing and pleading, the $1 billion project began Tuesday with a formal groundbreaking in downtown Minneapolis. About 600 people, including local politicians, business leaders and chanting fans, were in attendance as Wilf, Peterson, Gov. Mark Dayton and many others took turns flipping dirt and smiling for photos as fireworks exploded overhead.
The grinning and digging took place in the parking lot next to the Metrodome, where the Vikings have played since 1982. Their last game there is Dec. 29, and a three-month demolition of the Teflon-topped stadium will start in mid-January. After two years outdoors at the University of Minnesota, the Vikings are scheduled to inaugurate the ship-shaped, glass-encased venue in time for the 2016 season.
During a set of speeches in a nearby tent, Dayton joked that he felt just like Vikings coach Leslie Frazier after the team's 23-20 overtime victory Sunday over Chicago.
"I can't believe it's over, and I can't believe we won," Dayton said.
State lawmakers enacted a bill last year to fund the stadium with the threat, real or perceived, of the 52-year-old franchise moving to Los Angeles hovering over the often-tense process.
Many of the same hard-core, costumed fans who camped out at the state Capitol to help lobby for a deal were at the event Tuesday, their presence recognized by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
"Sometimes democracy includes painting faces and wearing horns," Rybak said.
The public is on the hook for roughly half the cost: $498 million. The NFL and Vikings are handling the rest, with much of the team's share coming from corporate naming rights and fees on season ticketholders, known as personal seat licenses.
Many lawmakers and citizens have railed against the project since it was first raised as a possibility around the turn of the century when Red McCombs owned the team. Dayton was a driving force behind the legislation, but even he publicly criticized the Vikings for the proposed PSLs.
The Vikings recently pledged to increase their contribution to more than $500 million to make sure the project has all the top-end amenities they want, like high-definition televisions in extra-wide concourses.
"Whatever that took to get that done, we had to step up because our fans are what this is all about," Mark Wilf said in an interview after the event. He added: "When it's actually here and you see the shovels out there beginning to dig, it's exciting."