Vanishing Act

Little-known revision of state law would allow Cardinals to play in BOB

Back in the early 1990s, when legislators were craftily passing legislation that allowed taxpayers to pay for a new ballpark, politicos in Tempe got nervous.

They feared that a new domed major league baseball stadium might only get approval if it could also become home to the Arizona Cardinals football team.

That would have been bad for Tempe, which has hosted Cardinals games since 1988, courtesy of Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium.

To get enough votes to pass the legislation that granted the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors the power to impose an unpopular quarter-cent sales tax to raise $238 million for Bank One Ballpark, legislators inserted a clause that banned the National Football League from playing games in the stadium.

It has now become the case of the vanishing law, with people wondering what rabbit hole it fell down these past couple of weeks, after I began asking why the Cardinals couldn't temporarily play football in BOB, home of Diamondbacks baseball.

Impossible, said State Senator Harry Mitchell, who is also the former mayor of Tempe.

Can't happen, said Rich Dozer, president of the Diamondbacks.

Illegal, said former lawmaker Chris Herstam, who specifically remembers crafting legislation that prevented professional football from ever being played in BOB.

Turns out they're all wrong.

Essentially, the legislation allowed a city or county to create a stadium authority that could issue bonds to pay for construction, then tap into state sales taxes collected at the site to build "multipurpose" facilities that presumably would benefit that city or region.

Several years after the original legislation passed, some clever Arizona communities looked at the legislation and discovered it was vague enough that it might be used to build structures other than a baseball park. Scottsdale, for instance, found that it could allow a developer to build a hockey arena surrounded by retail and office space on the site of the demolished Los Arcos Mall, and Tucson began looking to use the massive state tax refund to build a facility anchored by a convention center.

Then the gang up at the Legislature got wise and decided to pull up the ladder so other cities couldn't devise similar plans.

To do that, they began tinkering with the law, adding provisions that required a city to match the amount of the sales taxes collected, up to $200 million; required a city to hold an election asking for voter approval of the project; required a city to find two other cities in Arizona to join the stadium authority; and set an expiration date near the end of 1999 for a city to take advantage of the law.

Scottsdale and Tucson were the only cities to meet all of the requirements before the law expired, and in fact, both cities can still use authority funding for a qualified project.

Why do we care?

Because while the law was being recrafted, lawmakers inadvertently stripped out the provision that prevented the Cardinals from playing ball in BOB.

And in the endless posturing about where the stadium should be built, everyone has forgotten about putting together the best deal for taxpayers, namely that any stadium, particularly if it gets built on ASU property, should play host to both the Sun Devils andthe Cardinals. And this decision should be made before the Tourism and Sports Authority makes up its mind about where the stadium should be placed.

As it is, two of the best East Valley sites up for consideration would put the new stadium on ASU property, one practically next door, just east of the Karsten golf course on Rural Road. The other site is on ASU property at the 101 and 202 freeways.

There is a neat solution, but it would require regional leadership and vision to make it happen, something completely lacking in Arizona.

Temporarily move the Cardinals and the ASU football team into Bank One Ballpark (the Insight.com Bowl game gets played there every year) for three or four seasons, tear down Sun Devil Stadium, which was built in 1958 for $1 million, and build the new facility on that site.

That way, the Cardinals, ASU and the Fiesta Bowl would get one of the newest and presumably one of the best sports venues in the nation.

And it would give the voters some reassurance that the Cardinals, who appear more interested in development rights around the stadium than fielding a contending football team, have the fans in mind, too.

There are other reasons it could work, because it accomplishes several logical goals.

Tempe, which wants to keep the stadium so badly that officials turned a blind eye to the threat of placing the facility under a Sky Harbor flight path, has nevertheless proven it can host world-class events, including a Super Bowl.

Tempe and ASU also share a vision for redevelopment of the Rio Salado Project that would also support the development of the stadium, providing the restaurants, hotels and commercial development sought by the TSA.

The Cardinals would save a lot of money, avoiding having to pay Tempe a $675,000 yearly penalty for their training facility that triggers if the team plays its home game anywhere outside of Tempe.

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