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Vanishing Act

A rendering of the Cardinals stadium, if the TSA can ever find a place to put it.

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 and the 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.

There are admittedly a lot of obstacles to this plan (Insight.com has to haul $100,000 worth of turf into BOB every year), but no more than any other site currently under scrutiny. One downtown site that would incorporate plans to renovate Phoenix Civic Center Plaza would require extensive time and condemnation to create a parcel of land big enough.

The only line in the sand comes from the university.

"ASU is unalterably opposed to building a new stadium that would be shared by the Cardinals," says Jack Pfister, vice president for institutional advancement, even though it has a faulty foundation and needs extensive upgrades to the rest rooms and concession areas. ASU already has spent $300,000 in public dollars to fix the stadium in recent years, and a spokeswoman says another $6 million to $10 million in upgrades have been identified.

Pfister parroted views long held by ASU President Lattie Coor, who has said that Sun Devil is a premier college stadium, steeped in tradition. It is conveniently located for on-campus students and, quite frankly, my words, not Pfister's, the alumni would go apeshit if the ASU Board of Regents tried to take it away. He also says it's a matter of control.

The Diamondbacks might also balk at sharing Bank One Ballpark in September and October with professional and college football. The schedule would be tricky, but not unworkable.

However, the cash-strapped D-Backs, a team currently wallowing in debt and huge operating losses, could hardly afford to pass up the money generated by a few football games in the fall.

The ASU Board of Regents, which would ultimately make the decision to share a stadium, has an obligation, not only to students and alumni, but to the taxpayers who fund the institution to explore if it's at all feasible to share the stadium. After all, Arizona taxpayers mostly built Sun Devil, with a majority of the money coming via an appropriation from the state's general fund. Refusing to even consider playing in a new stadium with the Cardinals is not only shortsighted but pig-headed in the extreme.

I wanted to interview former ASU coach Frank Kush about his thoughts regarding a new stadium. Kush was the Sun Devils' football coach back in the 1960s and '70s, when ASU sports and the Phoenix Suns were the only games in town. His status was as lofty as Jerry Colangelo's is today. He still works part-time at ASU, and the Sun Devil football field was renamed honoring him a few years ago.

I was told by athletic department spokesman Mark Brand that Kush was banned from talking, but he didn't say why. Maybe ASU is afraid he'll speak his mind, that moving the team to a better facility would be best in the long-term.

How could playing in a new stadium hurt?


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