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Corroon rediscovers life after soccer

Stadium deal lets him catch up on back-burner projects

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Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon never wanted this: He didn't want to spend the past year solely focused on soccer.

Thanks to a controversial soccer-stadium debate, that's exactly what has happened, and he has had to let other projects fall by the wayside. Those include health insurance for small businesses, the budding Unified Police Department and environmental initiatives.

"Now I'm starting to catch up on things that I wasn't paying as much attention to as before," Corroon said.

Corroon didn't run for office in 2004 as a one-issue mayor. He didn't run to get a soccer stadium built. Instead, he ran on a platform of bringing honor back to the office as he replaced incumbent Nancy Workman's scandal-plagued administration.

Now, nearly two years later, his constituents are questioning that honor, because he made an about-face and gave a thumbs up to public funding earlier this month for a soccer stadium, after twice rejecting earlier stadium bids from the team.

"You lost my vote and confidence that we would see any changes with county government," a man named Jeff Geer wrote in an e-mail to Corroon just days after the mayor endorsed the funding plan. "It is nice to see that the county will pony up to (Real Salt Lake owner Dave) Checketts without any regards to the citizens. Hopefully you will be a 'one-term' mayor!"

Corroon said he did not cave in to Real and that he secured what he calls the best deal possible for residents of Salt Lake County. In exchange for giving up hotel-tax dollars to Real, the team will give the county $27.5 million in cash and in-kind donations. Plus, the county will own $35 million worth of land at the stadium site, which it will always own no matter how successful the team is, Corroon said.

The mayor said other deals he rejected didn't show that great of a return on investment. In fact, a Sandy soccer stadium looked all but dead after Corroon nixed two other funding plans in recent months. But as an Aug. 12 make-or-break deadline loomed, Corroon huddled with other county leaders to hammer out a plan to give the team $55 million in public subsidies.

"I knew that many of the citizens wouldn't be happy with the decision," Corroon said. "Every time I make a decision, I try to remember who I work for. I work for the citizens, not for other elected officials. I try to black out the noise and look at the facts. And the facts show this is a good deal."

The blue-eyed, baby-faced Corroon first came into office in 2005 after a career as a small-business owner working in affordable housing. As mayor, he inherited a slew of high-profile ethical and personnel scandals within county government from Workman's administration, exposed by internal whistle-blowers.

To keep a tighter grip on county operations and prevent future problems, Corroon, a Democrat, created the the Department of Administrative Services. The mayor jumped on new scandals as they popped up, immediately freezing fleet operations during an investigation of mismanagement, tweaking the tuition-reimbursement system and opening his weekly Cabinet meetings to the public.

It's a time-consuming job, but one he loves. He said he's hard-pressed for quality time with his wife and three kids. On Aug. 12 — the day of the stadium groundbreaking — he enjoyed his first date in months with his wife, Amy, celebrating their anniversary.

Even so, Corroon said he's destined for a life in public service. He plans on running for re-election in 2008, and he worries that the soccer-funding decision might come back to haunt him.

"It will affect some voters," Corroon said. "Hopefully, those who know me and realize I'm making decisions in their best interest will stay on board."

If recent response is any indication, people likely won't forget. In phones calls and e-mails, haters and supporters have bombarded him from all fronts.

Several said they no longer plan on voting for him in 2008. "You will NOT be getting a vote from this longtime Democrat," a woman named Jill Thompson wrote in an e-mail to the mayor.

Callers said he should be ashamed of himself because he "sold out to special interests." Others chided him for "selling out to big business," and falling prey to Real's "childish games."

Meanwhile, other residents rejoiced at the decision.

"Thank you for coming together with all the local politicians in creating a deal that will benefit the residents of this great county, as well as keep Real Salt Lake in Utah," Chris Enger, a Herriman resident, wrote in an e-mail to Corroon.

But Corroon doesn't care about making the popular choice, said Doug Willmore, the mayor's chief administrative officer. He only cares about doing what's best for the county taxpayer.

"People love him for not being political, and yet that's the reason he made the soccer decision," said Willmore, who is spearheading funding negotiations with Real. "He ignored popularity. He looked at what would be the best thing for the county.

"He knew that he'd take a big political hit when he did it, because he knew it would be difficult to explain," so difficult that people don't know what to think of it, Willmore added.

In a recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll of 152 Salt Lake County residents, 54 percent said didn't agree with the county's decision to approve public funding for the stadium, while 40 percent said they approved the move. However, the Dan Jones & Associates poll had a margin of error of 8 percent.

The poll was conducted August 16-17, just four days after groundbreaking on Real's stadium.

"It's going to take some incubation time to really find out if people favor this recent action by the Salt Lake County Council and the mayor," Jones said. "We did it so close to the vote, they really haven't had all the fallout of what people have said about the results, so it's very, very close in regard of whether people favor it or not."

The team wants the public to know more about the deal, and will kick off an information campaign throughout the month of September, complete with open house and other public events, a team spokesman said.

Negotiations are continuing on how Real Salt Lake can spend public money to buy land and infrastructure for a stadium. The Salt Lake County Council recently approved a "blueprint" of the deal and still must sign off on the final contract.

But it's time to move on, Corroon said.

He's sick of the political infighting over public funding for a professional stadium. He's tired of watching soccer overtake what he feels are more important issues. And he's ready to go back to normal life as Salt Lake County mayor.

Now that the deal is done, Checketts has apologized to Corroon for several high-profile criticisms: Real's owner called Corroon the "King of England," and overall county leadership a "completely dysfunctional group."

Checketts was in Spain in negotiations with Real Madrid this week and unavailable for comment. But Real CEO Dean Howes said that despite the rocky relationship the past few months, the team is happy everyone was able to come together to keep Real in Utah for years to come.

"I think everyone could have probably done better, but it's our first time dealing with these issues, and Mayor Corroon's first time," Howes said. "Everyone did the best job they knew how to do."

It was ugly — the ugliest processes Corroon said he has dealt with as county mayor. But to Corroon, it was all worth it, as Real Salt Lake will be playing soccer in Utah for years to come.

"In the end, all the wrangling back and forth came up with a proposal that did work," Corroon said of the public name-calling. "It was ugly, but that's probably the way politics should be."

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com