Birds of a Feather

Tribune Newspapers Publisher Karen Wittmer and Mesa Mayor Wayne Brown are continuing to squelch key information related to the Arizona Cardinals' efforts to build a domed stadium in west Mesa.

Their behind-the-scenes strategy, launched last summer, has resulted in the Tribune using its editorial pages to strongly support a plan to build a $507 million stadium and convention center. Meanwhile, the mayor is using his political muscle to block the city council from publicly debating the merits of a proposed stadium-use agreement before a May 18 citywide sales-tax election.

Mesa voters will decide whether to impose two, quarter-cent sales taxes to pay for $385 million in bonds for construction of the project that features a 67,400-seat, retractable dome football stadium and a 600,000-square-foot convention center. It would be built on 650 acres along the south bank of the Salt River at the southeast intersection of the 101 and 202 freeways.

The stadium-use agreement could result in $1.1 billion in taxpayer money going to the project. The Cardinals, meanwhile, would strike a deal that would have taxpayers paying them to play in the stadium that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the National Football League team.

The Tribune-mayoral alliance began in late July when Wittmer and Brown met to discuss ways to promote the stadium and convention center.

"I am looking forward to working with you on our planned grassroots effort for this project," Brown wrote in an August 5 follow-up letter to Wittmer.

In the letter, Brown also offered to compile "a list of individuals that I feel will most benefit our endeavors" and suggested "coordinating schedules" and "executing" meetings to promote the Crossing project.

"I know that we can increase the voters' approval by simply presenting as much information on the development as we can," Brown's letter stated.

But neither Brown nor the Tribune has presented voters with important information related to the project as the May 18 special election approaches.

Brown has steadfastly opposed efforts by two city councilmen--Keno Hawker and vice mayor John Giles--to discuss their concerns about the project during a formal council meeting prior to the election. Hawker and Giles, along with at least two other councilmen, have serious objections over the stadium-use agreement with the Cardinals that the council still must approve.

The Tribune, meanwhile, has never reported to its more than 100,000 East Valley readers that the city council has not yet approved the stadium-use agreement and that there are serious divisions within the council about the terms of the agreement.

Wittmer has played a prominent role in promoting Rio Salado Crossing not only through the newspaper but also by making numerous public appearances to tout the benefits of the massive project.

However, Wittmer says she doesn't remember receiving the August 5 letter from Brown that outlines their planned grassroots campaign.

"I don't have it in my files, which means I just pitched it," she says.
The letter was obtained from the city under the state public records law. Wittmer indicated that she has received other correspondence from Brown; those letters were not provided by the city.

"When he sends me a note, he generally scribbles something by hand in the bottom of it making it a little more personal," Wittmer says.

Brown's August 5 letter was simply signed "Wayne."
Wittmer says there are more than 300 active Rio Salado Crossing supporters, many of whom regularly hold meetings with community organizations to promote the project.

"That has always been the backbone of the project," she says.
Another important factor in the effort to convince voters to support the project is money. The "Yes on Rio Salado Crossing" political committee has raised more than $254,000. Nearly all the contributions have come from the Cardinals or companies that stand to benefit from the project. The Arizona Cardinals are the largest contributor ($100,000) followed by convention center operator Viad Corp. ($25,000), Bank One ($25,000) and SunCor Development Co. ($25,000). One of the committee's largest expenditures has been $45,000 to produce and mass-mail a 12-minute video promoting the project.

Mayor Brown's gasoline wholesale distribution company, Brown Evans, has also contributed to the Yes on Rio Salado Crossing campaign, giving $5,000. Brown's support for the project extends beyond financial. His refusal to place the stadium-use agreement on the city council's agenda has kept quiet a raucous debate among council members that so far has only been vented in closed executive sessions.

Last week, Brown, who did not return a call seeking comment, rejected requests by councilmen Hawker and Giles to put the stadium-use agreement on the agenda prior to the May 18 election. The tri-party agreement, commonly referred to as the Memorandum of Understanding, was signed in January by the Arizona Cardinals and the Rio Salado Crossing Multiuse Facilities District. The district would own and operate the stadium and convention center.

The MOU outlines a massive financial windfall for the Cardinals. Although the Cardinals are required to contribute $75 million toward construction, the team would receive naming rights to the stadium, worth anywhere from $50 million to $100 million, along with all revenue from concessions, advertising, game-day parking, tickets and marketing rights to more than 90 luxury suites expected to be leased for $100,000 a year.

The MOU also would provide the Cardinals with real estate development rights to the project that not only include the stadium and convention center, but also two 1,000-plus-room luxury hotels, a 750-room resort, 700,000 square feet of retail space and two million square feet of office space. The development rights are estimated to be worth about $80 million.

The team also secured rights to half of the revenue from non-game-day parking, another lucrative benefit worth about $87 million.

Meanwhile, under the MOU, taxpayers must cover operating losses for the stadium and convention center, estimated at between $4 million and $10 million a year. Taxes to cover operating losses are expected to be raised from surcharges levied on businesses operating within the facilities district.

The Cardinals, while paying $2 million a year for rent and other expenses, will have all their game-day expenses paid for by the facilities district, a perk worth more than $900,000 a year.

The Cardinals' $2 million in annual payments is expected to be more than recouped from the non-game-day parking revenue. As a result, taxpayers are projected to be paying the Cardinals about $175,000 the first year the team plays in the stadium.

The MOU's provisions granting non-game-day parking revenue and real estate development rights to the Cardinals has rankled a number of Mesa city councilmen. A majority say they will not sign the MOU with those provisions.

The Cardinals have refused to return phone calls seeking comment.
"Even the supporters on the council don't want to publicly sign off on that thing," vice mayor John Giles says about the MOU.

Councilmen Dennis Kavanaugh says he has significant concerns with the MOU but believes its problems can be worked out after the May 18 election. Nevertheless, Kavanaugh says "there needs to be a way to alert the public and advise them there is disagreement."

The best way to do that, Hawker says, is for the council to vote on the terms of the MOU before the May 18 election. Otherwise, the council runs the risk of having the public pass the sales tax without fully understanding the ramifications of the vote.

"What I'm fearful of, is if it does pass, we will be held to the MOU that was executed between the . . . Cardinals and the Rio Salado district board," says Hawker.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address: [email protected]

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty