House of Cards

The taxpayers would get soaked and the Arizona Cardinals would get fat at Rio Salado Crossing

Forget the Super Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals' biggest victory for decades to come will arrive May 18, if Mesa voters approve a $385 million sales-tax hike that will help finance a 67,400-seat football stadium.

For the first time since arriving in the Valley 11 years ago, the Cardinals are displaying the vigor and determination of a champion in their drive for the new stadium, which would be ensconced in a massive real estate project called Rio Salado Crossing.

Their bold march would be impossible if key Mesa government and business leaders weren't running interference for them.

The National Football League team is underwriting a sophisticated campaign to convince voters that it is the public, not the Cardinals, that stands to benefit most from the sales-tax boost, which could last up to 20 years. The Cardinals' high-dollar sales pitch is being delivered to thousands of Mesa voters via 12-minute videos. The tapes, which tout the benefits that would accrue to voters if they approve the stadium, are disingenuous, to say the least.

A reading of the fine print in government documents reveals that if the sales-tax hike is approved, the Cardinals stand to reap a fortune while contributing virtually nothing to the project.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, could end up pumping more than $1 billion into the scheme.

In almost every sense, Rio Salado Crossing is a house of cards.
But the Cardinals and their civic backers have cleverly disguised the stadium inside a real estate project the likes of which Arizona has never seen. Rio Salado Crossing would make the Camelback Esplanade look like a strip mall. Hence, signs pop up all over Mesa urging folks to vote "Yes on Rio Salado Crossing" rather than "Yes on the Cardinals' stadium."

Rio Salado Crossing would be built on 640 acres along the Salt River, southeast of the intersection of the 202 and 101 freeways. Stadium advocates say it would be a new city, complete with two huge luxury hotels and a resort, a retail development four times the size of the Arizona Center and enough office space to contain seven copies of the Bank of America tower, Mesa's tallest building. The futuristic project also will feature the nation's 14th-largest convention center and two 18-hole golf courses.

Oh, and it would have a football stadium that happens to be equipped with a retractable dome and a portable natural grass field that would slide in and out of the stadium like a cookie sheet. The stadium would also contain more than 90 luxury suites that the Cardinals plan to lease annually for more than $100,000 each.

The catalyst for Rio Salado Crossing would be the $507 million Arizona Exposition and Convention Center--of which the stadium is the prominent feature. Most construction costs would come from a $385 million bond issue voters will consider May 18. The Cardinals would contribute $75 million toward the construction--a pledge that sounds generous but is one that the team could recoup in the first year of operation. The balance of construction costs would come from a diversion of state sales taxes that must win legislative approval.

Once this public money is committed, the Cardinals say, private developers are poised to chip in another $1.2 billion to build fabulous hotels, shops, restaurants, office buildings, parks, houses and condos that will surround the stadium.

Private investment is crucial to the success of the stadium and convention center. A host of sales taxes generated by businesses that become part of Rio Salado Crossing would be used to cover projected operating losses from the stadium and convention center. If there's any money left over, it would go to the Cardinals.

The Cardinals and their civic supporters--led most prominently by Mesa Tribune publisher Karen Wittmer and Mesa Mayor Wayne Brown--are reticent to discuss the operating losses the convention center and stadium will rack up.

Instead, they speak of the parks, lakes, recreation areas and vibrant nightlife Rio Salado Crossing promises to finally bring to Mesa. They say Rio Salado Crossing would transform Mesa from a humdrum suburb into a major league city.

"This is a huge economic engine for the City of Mesa, and nothing like it will ever come to us again," Brown enthuses.

There is no guarantee that would happen. What would be guaranteed is that the project would divert unprecedented sums of tax dollars.

A New Times investigation that included review of thousands of government documents and interviews with key officials reveals that Rio Salado Crossing's planners would tap at least seven different tax streams for decades to come to underwrite their vision of Oz.

Other significant but heretofore unreported findings:
* The May 18 special election may be moot. The Mesa City Council is divided on the merits of a key agreement with the Cardinals to build the stadium and convention center. Even if voters approved the sales tax, the council could still kill the project. Currently, a council majority is opposed to the agreement as written.

* If the Rio Salado Crossing project succeeds as its planners envision, taxpayers would actually pay the Cardinals more than $175,000 a year to play in the stadium.

* Taxpayers absorb virtually all of the risk. It is the taxpayers, not the Cardinals, who would pay for the operation and maintenance of the football stadium and convention center. Taxpayers would foot those bills even on days the Cardinals use the stadium. Planners project operating losses of $4 million to $10 million a year.

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