Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Friday that lawmakers have a deadline of next Friday to set aside money needed to keep Real Salt Lake soccer in Utah or the team will be lost to St. Louis or Philadelphia.
"I would certainly encourage people not to sell their Real tickets," Huntsman told the Deseret Morning News. "I'm not ready to say it's a done deal, but we're up against the shot clock and could very well score going into next week."
The governor said he is "comfortable" with a package pieced together by House leaders that would set aside a share of Salt Lake County's transient room tax through 2022 to buy the land and build a parking garage for a new soccer stadium in Sandy.
Lawmakers are also looking at creating a new sports commission in the south valley to manage the funds. The House on Friday approved the funding bill, HB38, but the Senate has yet to commit to the package.
The governor said there's not much time left to finalize a deal with the team.
"We have a deadline, which is Friday," he said, warning that without legislative action, "a week from today, the team is sold to St. Louis, if not to St. Louis, then to Philadelphia. The shot clock has started."
St. Louis or Philly?
With a lucrative offer in St. Louis enticing team officials, lawmakers are pouring their efforts into the original Sandy site. While Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is still championing the Utah State Fairpark as an alternative option, Sandy is the focus.
But three cities around St. Louis are anxious to play host to a Major League Soccer team in their town.
Jeff Cooper, a lawyer who is the managing partner of Simmons Cooper in St. Louis, is negotiating a deal for his group to own the team. He said they are "very, very close to a stadium deal," and he's expecting to come to a resolution sometime next week.
Stadium plans, he said, would be much like the one proposed in Sandy, with a public-private partnership. The difference, he said, is that these public leaders are willing to put "their money where their mouth is."
"It's one of the best-supported teams in MLS — they've just been let down by their public officials," he said. "Here, the public officials are just stepping up to the plate for all the businesses and people in the community that want to see a high-profile team in their hometown."
Cooper's group has been looking into purchasing an MLS franchise for some time, and he says the worldwide attention that an MLS team provides is better than that of any other pro-sports franchise.
"The best summer was the Real Madrid and Real Salt Lake game. It's not very often that you have the focus of the whole world on your town," Cooper said. "That's so much bigger than how many tickets you've sold."
As for Philadelphia, Real Salt Lake officials do not have official permission from Major League Soccer to negotiate a possible move there, league spokesman Dan Courtemanch said.
On Capitol Hill
In Utah, lawmakers have come up with a plan to keep the stadium in the state by using HB38 as a way to collect the $35 million needed for the stadium project. The bill now sets aside $20 million for a parking facility and is expected to be amended to give the state the power to collect another $15 million in Salt Lake County's hotel-room taxes over the next 20 years.
The measure passed the House on Friday with an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, spelling out that county hotel-tax dollars will only be used for parking at the county's two biggest convention centers and not for a stadium.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, now moves to the Senate. But Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, took issue with the bill and its relation to soccer. "Whether this is about the soccer stadium or not, I have no idea, but the manner that this is coming up right now and the complete sense of confusion about what the effect of the bill is, I think we need to hold off and either circle or have some discussion," he said.
Huntsman agreed that there has been confusion surrounding who is actually paying for the stadium. The governor insists the state will pay only for the land. The state would use a portion of the transient room tax to buy the land needed for the project and lease it to the team. The rest of the tax would go toward the $20 million parking structure.
In 2005, the Legislature passed a bill that gave Salt Lake County the authority to use hotel-tax revenue to both renovate the Salt Palace and build a parking garage at the South Towne Exposition Center. The county bonded for $20 million about 18 months ago to pay for the garage, but construction stalled as the county negotiated a possible funding deal with Real for a stadium.
Even after killing a deal to fund the stadium, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon insisted the county would still build the garage. If the Senate passes the bill, he will have no choice — the state would take that $20 million and build it for the county.
However, the county would still have to pay the debt payments on the $20 million, the county's chief financial officer Doug Willmore said.
Salt Lake County Council Chairman Mark Crockett said if state officials wanted the stadium so badly, they should have just funded it in the first place "without putting us in the middle."
"If it's truly a state priority, then I'm not sure why it's this county alone that pays for it," Crockett said.
The Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss an inter-local agreement with the state on the $20 million parking garage. Crockett said the new deal is similar to the one Corroon killed earlier this week.
However, the biggest difference between that deal and the one lawmakers are cooking up is the $27.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions the team offered to the county in the deal nixed earlier this week by Corroon.
Despite those benefits that might be off the table, the governor said the deal that lawmakers are considering is "not materially different" from what Corroon turned down earlier this week. "It's pretty much based on the same premises," Huntsman said.
He suggested the county "may have factored into their risk analysis the $20 million for the parking garage." But, he added, "It's probably an unfair assumption to throw the parking garage in, since it's going to be done anyway."
The governor stopped short of criticizing Corroon. "I'm not a historian nor am I here to be a Monday morning quarterback," Huntsman said. "My only job is to advocate that which I think is in the long-term interest of the state."
Corroon, meanwhile, said Friday that he still stands by his decision. "We didn't think it was financially viable. Obviously they have a higher risk tolerance than we do."