Hidden Agenda

Records withheld by the city of Tempe and obtained by New Times reveal that Tempe was planning to submit the Papago Park Center site to the Tourism and Sports Authority for the Arizona Cardinals football stadium before the November 7, 2000, election, but withheld those plans from the public until after the vote.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Tempe formally notified the TSA and voters that its preferred location for the stadium was a 200-acre parcel located at McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway. But soon after Proposition 302 was narrowly approved, Tempe dropped the McClintock site and substituted Papago Park Center.

The TSA selected Papago Park Center last February as the site for construction of the $335 million retractable-dome, removable-field stadium to serve as host for the Arizona Cardinals. Papago Park Center is part of a commercial development owned and operated by Salt River Project, the state's second-largest electric utility and one of the biggest employers in Tempe.

Tempe's site-selection maneuvering coincided with official statements by the TSA that potential stadium sites needed to be submitted before the election -- a position TSA reversed immediately following the vote.

In addition to misleading the public about the stadium site, Tempe records also show the city planned to bypass legally required public bidding for sewer improvements at the Papago Park Center site after it was picked by the TSA.

The Papago Park Center site has generated controversy since last winter when the TSA was warned by Phoenix officials that the site could pose serious problems for Sky Harbor Airport because it was situated directly under the flight path of the north runway -- the airport's longest and most sophisticated landing strip.

Construction on the stadium was halted in July after the Federal Aviation Administration issued a preliminary report stating the stadium was a "presumed" navigation hazard. The TSA moved the stadium site 1,600 feet east on the Papago Park Center property in an effort to calm FAA concerns, but it still remains mired in problems.

West Valley developer John F. Long is preparing to sue the city and the TSA in the wake of Attorney General Janet Napolitano's decision last week not to investigate numerous improprieties alleged by Long. City of Phoenix officials are also preparing to go to court to stop construction of the stadium.

Phoenix lawyer Brad Holm told the TSA board of directors Monday that Phoenix will file a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order if the authority moves forward with construction or purchases steel for the project prior to receiving FAA clearance.

The FAA is expected to determine the suitability of the new site by October 7, when a 30-day public comment period concludes.

The TSA ignored Phoenix's lawsuit warning and voted to begin excavation of the site and purchase $6 million worth of steel from a European mill prior to the FAA ruling.

Three weeks before last November's stadium vote, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano convened an informal city council meeting to discuss submitting sites to the state TSA.

For Tempe, retaining the Arizona Cardinals, the Fiesta Bowl and getting on the Super Bowl rotation was a top priority. As Giuliano opened discussion about the stadium at the October 12, 2000, issue review session, the deadline for submitting potential sites to the TSA was fast approaching.

Giuliano controlled the discussion, saying it was his "sense" that the city should not submit the Papago Park Center site, at Priest Drive and Washington Street, to the authority for consideration. Instead, Giuliano said the city should submit a parcel at the intersection of McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway.

Giuliano's suggestion to bypass the Papago Park Center site was greeted with shrugs of agreement from other members of the city council during the videotaped meeting.

No one questioned the suitability of the McClintock site -- a 200-acre parcel owned by Maricopa County that the city has long known to be plagued with serious environmental problems.

Despite Giuliano's statement that the Papago Park Center site should not be submitted prior to the election, documents show that Tempe was already planning to push for this particular location.

The council's decision to submit the McClintock site to the TSA came just two days after Tempe economic development director Jan Schaefer said in an e-mail that she was certain that Tempe would submit the Papago Park Center site to the TSA.

In an October 10, 2000, e-mail to Papago Park Center manager Gena Trimble, Schaefer said: "As a follow-up to our telephone conversation of a couple of weeks ago, the City of Tempe is currently planning to submit Papago Park Center site to the Tourism and Sports Authority as a potential football stadium site."

A few weeks after the stadium proposition was narrowly approved by voters, Tempe dropped the McClintock/Rio Salado site and submitted the Papago Park Center site -- the same location that Giuliano said a month earlier should not be submitted.

The Papago Park Center location was eventually selected by the TSA for the stadium on February 13 -- in large part because Tempe officials assured the TSA the site would not pose a problem for the airport. That proved not to be the case.

Prior to the July flare-up with the FAA, Papago Park Center officials worked closely with Tempe to quickly prepare the site for construction. Last May, Tempe asked Papago Park Center officials if they would contract out sewer construction work needed for the site, rather than Tempe going through the slower, but legally required, public bidding process to do the work.

"Per your request, SRP will contract out the sewer work as an accommodation to the city," Papago Park Center executive Jayne Lewis wrote in a May 3, 2001, e-mail to Tempe redevelopment director Steve Nielsen.

"Otherwise, as I understand, the public bid process for the work would adversely impact the schedule for the canal relocation. As we discussed, this additional sewer cost is the city's cost and will not be the point of future negotiations with PPC."

Tempe has refused repeated requests to release documents related to site preparation for the stadium. The Papago Park Center memo to Nielsen was leaked to New Times.

How did the Papago site come out of nowhere at the last minute to win TSA approval -- particularly after Mayor Giuliano pushed in mid-October to drop the site from consideration?

Tempe officials are dodging the issue by feigning memory loss and sealing public records. The e-mail sent by Schaefer was obtained from a private source after Tempe refused to release records specifically requested by New Times in late July.

Giuliano offers one explanation. He told New Times last month that Salt River Project indicated the Papago Park Center site might be available for the stadium, but that the water and electric utility didn't want to get involved until after the election for political reasons.

Tempe obliged, Giuliano said, keeping the Papago Park Center site in the background until after voters narrowly approved Proposition 302.

Giuliano has since backed away from that version of events he gave New Times in a tape-recorded interview. In an August 20 letter to SRP president William Schrader, Giuliano states he is "disturbed and outraged" with a New Times article ("Quarterback Sneak," John Dougherty, August 16) that outlined the site-selection process.

"SRP never conspired with Tempe about this project and this site, and we all know that," Giuliano stated in the letter, which, like the Schaefer e-mail, was leaked to New Times after Tempe refused to release the document.

SRP has a slightly different version of events.

SRP spokesman Jeff Lane says that prior to the election, Tempe asked the utility company to donate the Papago Park Center land to Tempe. Lane wouldn't say who made the proposition.

"We were told that our property at Priest and Washington had to be provided at no cost . . ." Lane says.

Not surprisingly, SRP rejected Tempe's request. SRP is a quasi-municipal company that would have a difficult time justifying giving away valuable commercial land for a football stadium.

Shortly after the election, Lane says, Tempe changed its tune.

On November 20, Lane says Giuliano called Schrader and asked once again about the Papago Park Center site. This time, Lane says, Tempe was willing to put up money to obtain a lease on the property.

"We were told the initial requirement of no cost was no longer required and that the city of Tempe would entertain a market-based ground lease," Lane says.

Tempe's sudden offer of cash quickly led to a preliminary agreement for Tempe to lease the property. Papago Park Center manager Gena Trimble sent a lease agreement dated November 28 to Tempe deputy city manager Pat Flynn.

The Tempe city government wheels were now turning quickly to prepare the Papago site for the TSA.

The city's principal planner, Fred Brittingham, sent a November 28 memo to redevelopment director Steve Nielsen outlining dates for 10 meetings before city boards and commissions necessary to zone the property for the stadium. (City attorney Brad Woodford later told Brittingham to forget the zoning process, saying TSA was exempt from city zoning provisions.)

On the same day SRP was sending over tentative lease agreements and city staffers were preparing to zone the property, Giuliano announced at a TSA board meeting that he expected the city council would soon approve a plan to withdraw the McClintock/Rio Salado site -- because of extensive environmental problems -- and substitute it with the Papago Park Center site.

The next day, November 29, the city council, meeting once again at a sparsely attended issue review session, informally agreed to Giuliano's plan to submit the Papago Park Center site. The meeting adjourned at 5:40 p.m.

Despite the late-afternoon meeting, Giuliano prepared and sent a letter to TSA extolling the virtues of the Papago Park Center site.

"The site's strategic geographic location, coupled with convenient freeway access to most Valley cities and a unique desert setting, provides a great site for the Multipurpose Stadium Facility," Giuliano wrote in his November 29 letter to TSA board chairman Jim Grogan.

TSA board member C.A. Howlett sent a letter dated the same day to Giuliano expressing his delight in Tempe's submission of the Papago center.

The America West executive didn't mention that in the late 1980s and early 1990s he oversaw development at the Papago Park Center when he was an executive at Salt River Project.

Tempe councilman Hugh Hallman offers a third version of events.

Hallman says the Papago Park Center site was among six sites under consideration by Tempe in late 1999, but most were quickly eliminated. Hallman says the Papago Park Center site was eliminated from consideration before the election because SRP was attempting to lease the site to Lennar Partners of Irvine, California.

Hallman says Giuliano announced sometime after the election that the Lennar deal had fallen through and that the Papago Park Center land was available.

SRP records, however, reveal that the Lennar Partners' option to lease the Papago Park Center was coming unraveled by early last summer and was terminated by Lennar on August 28, 2000 -- more than two months before the election.

Lennar's interest in the Papago Park Center project would soon be rekindled.

Soon after TSA selected the site, Lennar was tapped by the Arizona Cardinals to oversee more than two million square feet of hotel, retail and commercial development planned to be built around the stadium.

As part of the deal with the Cardinals, Tempe agreed to give the team all the development rights on 37.5 acres surrounding the stadium. The deal is a potential windfall for Lennar.

"We thought that the stadium would actually heighten interest in the area," says Lennar Partners Senior Vice President Curt Stephenson.

At the same time that Tempe and SRP were shuffling the Papago Park Center site to the forefront, the TSA reversed its requirement to submit potential stadium sites prior to the November 7 election.

In August 2000, TSA lawyer Jay S. Ruffner wrote Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza that "prior to the November 7 election, the Tourism and Sports Authority is required to select one or more sites for the multipurpose facility. . . ."

Ruffner reiterated this requirement in an October 25, 2000, letter to former Tempe interim city manager John Greco and again on November 2, 2000, prior to Tempe's formal submission of the McClintock/Rio Salado site.

"The purpose of this letter is to acknowledge that the City of Tempe proposes to provide to the Tourism and Sports Authority a site for the multipurpose stadium facility to be developed by the authority upon passage of Proposition 302," Ruffner stated in a letter to Greco.

"The site," Ruffner continued, "is within an overall tract in excess of 200 acres at the northeast corner of McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway."

Tempe's sudden switch to the Papago Park Center site after the election ruffled a few feathers, particularly in the West Valley, where John F. Long was prepared to donate land for the stadium.

Peoria Mayor John C. Keegan sent a January 29, 2001, letter to the TSA stating that a "common belief among many of the voters I have spoken with is that the final site was to be selected from those submitted prior to the election."

Not so, the TSA responded a week later.

TSA president and chief executive officer Ted Ferris states in a February 6, 2001, letter that the fine print in the request for site proposals "did not exclude post-election proposals and agreements."

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty