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From nail biter to unanimous support: Coyotes’ arena and entertainment district proposal moves forward after 7-0 vote by Tempe City Council

Craig Morgan Avatar
November 30, 2022

Early in the Coyotes’ bid to build an arena and entertainment district along the south bank of the Salt River, there was a strong possibility that the Tempe City Council would reject the team’s proposal.

“One hundred percent true,” council member Randy Keating said Tuesday. “Even before deciding to enter negotiations with the Coyotes, there was a lot of mixed emotions in the city over it. There was never a period where I thought this project was going to be a 7-0 all the way up until we took the votes tonight.”

In January, the Coyotes were two votes short of support in council. By June, they had five votes in favor of moving forward with negotiations. By the time the council convened on Tuesday to vote definitively on all three items of the proposal, the Coyotes had won over every single member, as well as city staff charged with researching and analyzing the deal. 

The Council voted 7-0 in support of all three items on the proposal, making it crystal clear to voters that council believes this is a great deal for the city. Part of that evolution of opinion came through research and a better understanding of the nuances of the deal. Part of it came through conversations that council was finally permitted to have with the Coyotes after voting to move forward in negotiations in June. And part of it came via concessions from the Coyotes.

“We played hardball on some issues and we got former Mayor Hugh Hallman involved in negotiations,” Tempe Vice Mayor Jennifer Adams said. “We needed somebody that was an expert in negotiations, and Hugh filled that void.”

Any negotiation is going to involve some give and take, and Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez admitted that there were issues on which the team would not budge. There were several, however, on which the Coyotes were willing to give ground.

“Our staff absolutely killed it,” Keating said. “They did an excellent job negotiating protections and guarantees for the city, all the while securing additional public benefits. This deal went from maybe-but-probably-not to a unanimous decision only for the hard work of Tempe staff.”

Keating said that throughout private negotiations, the terms moved substantially in the city’s favor “piece by piece, day by day.”

If you want to view the deal free from interpretation, the City of Tempe posted exhaustive details on its website, and Mayor Corey Woods promised even more information in the coming days. One narrative that he wanted to dispel, however, was the notion that Tempe taxpayers could be on the hook for any part of this project. 

“If you don’t go and watch a game, if you don’t buy a hat or a jersey in the Tempe entertainment district, if you don’t dine in one of the restaurants and you don’t stay in the apartments, if you don’t go to the hotel, you’re not going to be paying for it,” Woods said. “It’s going to be entirely privately financed and it’s going to be the people who actually want to enjoy this opportunity with the Tempe entertainment district that are going to be footing the bill for the experience.

“People I think will look at this and as they pull it apart, I think they will realize what’s been structured and put together by our team here really is the best arena deal in the history of the state of Arizona.”

The council vote does not mean that the deal is complete, however. The council voted earlier this month to send the proposal to a city-wide referendum on which Tempe residents will vote on May 16. Gutierrez said that the referendum process will begin immediately.

“It starts literally [Wednesday] morning,” he said. “I think at 9 a.m., Marina Carpenter, our general counsel, is going to be submitting the petition for referendum at the clerk’s office.

“We have committed to gathering all of the signatures in the next nine or 10 days, so not the full 30 days in order to try to expedite their validation of those signatures. We hired a lot of people who do that as their business. That’s already been done. They’ve already been hired. They’ve already been brought on board. We’re ready to go.”

The Coyotes need 2,104 valid signatures for each of the three issues on the ballot, so 6,312 total valid signatures, but one person can sign all three petitions.

There is nearly a six-month gap between Tuesday’s vote and the referendum. The Coyotes understand that such a lengthy wait will afford opponents of this deal time to strategize and formulate their plan of attack.

Some of those opponents spoke in council chambers on Tuesday, including citizens groups concerned about traffic, noise, diversion of city resources, and tax breaks for a wealthy owner with a history of not paying his bills. City of Phoenix Director of Aviation Services Chad Makovsky reiterated concerns about air traffic safety with residential units being built along a flight path, and CASE executive director Brendan Walsh also spoke.

Their concerns were echoed by council member Doreen Garlid.

“Is this the right fit?” she asked “Is this exactly 100 percent what we want there? Because we can’t go back. Once we have made this decision to sell this last bulk of land that we have left … that’s it.”

The Coyotes and the league both said that they understand and respect the process by which groups can voice concern or opposition.

“My guess is there will be a number of critics with other agendas who will try and confuse the issues and the facts,,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “But frankly, time may be an ally in terms of setting the record straight. It gives enough time for people to get all the information out there, and to the extent there are issues, address them.”

There are also groups and people with vast experience who spoke or worked in support of the deal including Hallman, Tempe Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Colin Diaz, and former Mayor Neil Giuliano.

“I think if you look at the project, it’s pretty incredible,” Giuliano said. “Quite honestly, you’re not going to find another project that’s going to come forward with that kind of capacity to impact the future economic well-being of the city.”

Despite the long wait before the referendum, there was a sense of elation in council chambers late Tuesday night. All seven council members remained to mingle with Coyotes officials. Owner Alex Meruelo gave an impassioned speech about partnership with the city, then hugged those council members after the vote. GM Bill Armstrong outlined the on-ice plan. Chief Hockey Development Officer Shane Doan, without intending to, reminded everyone just how critical a role he has played in the continued Valley presence of this franchise, and Bettman reminded everyone about the importance of location.

“It was a momentous occasion and I don’t want it to be diminished because there’s another step to the journey,” Gutierrez said. “It was a big deal. This was the vision and we were going to do everything we could to make it happen. You heard Alex Meruelo’s commitment and dedication and that really, really came through tonight. I’m very proud of everybody that worked to get us here.”

As Bettman and Daly prepared to hop on a plane back to New Jersey right after the meeting concluded, the vote underscored their steadfast commitment to this market.

“Our role has definitely been a support role, but it’s to make clear, not only to the people here in Tempe, but to people really around the league, how supportive the league is of this franchise in this market,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You would be the first person to know how much criticism, from time to time, we get in terms of our faith in this market, but I’ll tell you, it’s never wavered and we think this is the opportunity for this club to have long-term stability and success. They have an owner who’s committed to it and we’re committed to the owner.”

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