Quarterback Sneak

Delay of game during a football contest is a minor penalty -- merely a five-yard infraction.

Further delay in building the Arizona Cardinals' proposed $331 million "multipurpose facility" is far more serious.

And that's what looms on the horizon.

Weeks and possibly months of delay. If construction doesn't begin by October 1, the entire project could be in jeopardy as construction costs mount in the face of a project that's supposed to have a fixed cost of $331 million.

The latest hurdle facing the stalled project -- already a month behind schedule -- came Friday when West Valley developer John F. Long asked Attorney General Janet Napolitano to investigate the stadium financing and site selection process. As of presstime, Napolitano had not responded to Long's request, but did say in a radio interview late last week that she and her staff first must determine if it is a matter for the Attorney General or the courts.

Long is promising to file a lawsuit seeking to stop funding of the stadium if Napolitano doesn't investigate. He's also supporting a proposal to launch a citizens' initiative drive to strip the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority's power to fund the stadium.

"It is my opinion that the selection of the Tempe site and expenditures made by the TSA have violated state statute," Long says.

Long's saber-rattling comes at the same time a New Times investigation of the stadium project has uncovered numerous problems on several fronts. These include:

• The cost of building the stadium -- which voters were told would not exceed $331 million -- is now expected to increase sharply because designers failed to incorporate convention center uses as required by Proposition 302. Even at this late date, the final design of the stadium is not complete and the promised "guaranteed maximum price" contract to build the facility has not been signed. One estimate of the stadium's eventual cost is $360 million.

• City of Tempe officials deceived the public when they said last February the city could finance approximately $23 million worth of infrastructure improvements for the stadium site at no cost to Tempe taxpayers through a complex repayment schedule.

• Tempe intends to exempt the stadium from city zoning regulations, bypassing the need for public hearings and a possible referendum, which zoning attorneys say could open the door for another lawsuit. Bank One Ballpark, America West Arena, and Veterans Memorial Coliseum are all subject to City of Phoenix zoning regulations.

• Tempe plans to grant the Arizona Cardinals millions of dollars worth of property tax abatements on at least 37.5 acres adjacent to the stadium controlled by the team's owners, B&B Holdings. The Cardinals plan to develop a hotel, restaurants, retail and office space adjacent to the stadium.

• Tempe and Salt River Project worked together to keep the Priest Drive and Washington Street location in the background until after voters approved Proposition 302. Long alleges this was an illegal bait-and-switch.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Long's threat as mere rhetoric. The developer has a long history of tackling legal issues on principle and has the money to mount an aggressive legal attack. For example, Long spent about $1 million in a four-year battle with the City of Phoenix over the sale of effluent to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.

"He's probably one of the few civic-minded people with financial resources to do this," says Jim Miller, a longtime executive in Long's development company.

The mere threat of Long's lawsuit and his call for an initiative drive, coupled with a possible investigation by the state attorney general, makes it very risky for the Tourism and Sports Authority to sell revenue bonds needed to finance construction of the stadium, experts say.

Until this issue is resolved, construction will very likely be stalled. No bonds, no money, no stadium. The longer construction is delayed, the less likely the stadium will be completed for what the public was promised -- $331 million, and it's not clear who would pay for any cost overruns.

"This thing is on a tightrope and I believe it could fall off at any time," says Tempe City Councilman Dennis Cahill. "There's a lot of things that are uncertain."

To see what can happen when disgruntled citizens file lawsuits to block funding of stadium projects, just take a look at San Diego. The San Diego Padres were forced to stop construction last October on their new baseball stadium after a barrage of legal action halted bond sales financing the project.

Tourism and Sports Authority board member Roc Arnett says the stadium was headed to the West Valley until the Cardinals advanced Tempe $18 million to bolster Tempe's financing plan just two days before the authority made its site selection February 13.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty