Quarterback Sneak

To get the stadium they want, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano are playing fast and loose with the rules of the game

The bottom line:

The Cardinals -- who before the election claimed they couldn't contribute any more than $85 million to build the stadium -- are now investing more than $50 million to secure long-term leases and development rights at a location that will subject users of the stadium to incessant noise from low-flying jet aircraft and possible safety hazards.

Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano has kept Tempe citizens in 
the dark about the city's financial deals with the 
Kevin Scanlon
Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano has kept Tempe citizens in the dark about the city's financial deals with the Cardinals.

Tourism and Sports Authority board member John Benton has weathered his share of controversy. Long the fair-haired boy of Tempe development officials, Benton has played a crucial role in the controversial redevelopment of downtown Tempe and the Rio Salado Project.

His prominence makes him a frequent target of critics who believe he has a much too cozy relationship with Tempe City Hall. He handles the attacks in stride, keeping focused on his mission to promote "neo-urbanist" development by promoting infill projects versus development on the urban fringes.

Benton is usually quite candid in his assessment of projects -- including criticizing his own development deals when plans don't work out. An avid baseball fan who has long supported the construction of a stadium along the banks of the Salt River, Benton now finds himself a target in John F. Long's attack on the stadium.

Long alleges Benton had a conflict of interest when he voted in favor of the Tempe site because he has development interests nearby. Benton dismisses the allegation, saying the stadium at the Tempe site could lure development away from his projects.

Whether a conflict exists remains to be seen. But even Long's associates acknowledge that Benton has been a valuable member of the Tourism and Sports Authority board who has kept close tabs on the design and financing of the project.

Reached while on vacation in Nova Scotia last week, Benton says the stadium is going to cost far more than the $331 million promised voters.

"There is no way it's going to cost $331 [million]," says Benton, who holds a construction engineering degree from Arizona State University. "It's going to cost a lot more because the design has evolved into a multipurpose facility."

Benton says despite the fact that many people believe that Hunt Development Company, which is expected to control the design/build contract for the stadium, would build it for no more than $331 million, there is nothing set in stone.

"I don't think there has ever been a valid commitment by Hunt to build it for $331 [million]," Benton says.

Hunt officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Benton recounts a story from his first meeting on the Tourism and Sports Authority board when he realized that crucial construction details related to making the stadium a true multipurpose facility had been ignored.

Benton says he asked about the design of the floor of the facility after the retractable playing field was removed from the stadium.

"What's on the floor? If you are going to have a convention there, or booths for a trade show, you have to have a power grid. It wasn't there. None of that was included in the $331 [million]," he says.

Since then, Benton says designers have been working to ensure that the stadium will truly be a multipurpose facility that can not only host football games, but also regional trade shows and conventions. But these changes cost money.

"You have a lot of different, minute details that were never contemplated and never evolved," he says.

Benton says he's focusing on making sure the Tourism and Sports Authority delivers "to the voters of Maricopa County a facility that meets the demands of a multipurpose facility and not just a football stadium."

But to do that, the $331 million cap must be tossed out the door.

"Don't get too excited about the $331 [million]," he says, warning that this is a nebulous figure that has little relation to what could be the project's ultimate price tag.

Benton says the Tourism and Sports Authority might be able to raise more money for construction because of lower interest rates on bonds. But that cuts both ways. Lower interest rates will also diminish earnings on bond proceeds that the Tourism and Sports Authority has been counting on.

Benton says it might cost $360 million or so to build the multipurpose facility that was promised.

So much for the statement in the official Proposition 302 publicity pamphlet provided to voters prior to the election which stated:

"The construction cost of the facility is anticipated to be approximately, but not in excess of, $331 million."

Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano leans back on the sofa and kicks his feet up on to the coffee table. It's dress-down Friday at Tempe City Hall, and Giuliano is clad in jeans, a pullover knit shirt and tennis shoes.

Giuliano downplays the controversy related to the stadium siting and delays stemming from Federal Aviation Administration concerns. Instead, Giuliano says Tempe is moving forward with an aggressive marketing campaign to land major events like the Final Four to the new multipurpose stadium.

"What we are trying to do is make sure when they open the facility in 2004, it is more than a football stadium," he says.

Other than promotional efforts, Giuliano says Tempe is just waiting for construction to begin.

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