Salting the Project

Salt River Project and its subsidiary Papago Park Center each contributed $5,000 to the Arizona Cardinals' successful Proposition 302 campaign fund less than two weeks before last November's election, Maricopa County election records reveal.

The contributions appear to have had a powerful impact.

Soon after the election, the City of Tempe suddenly dropped its proposed stadium site at McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway that the city had formally submitted to the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority before the election, and substituted a site at Papago Park Center near the intersection of Priest Drive and Washington Street in Tempe.

In a controversial decision, the TSA selected the Papago Park Center for the stadium in February, after Tempe falsely claimed it had obtained preliminary approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the site due east of Sky Harbor Airport's longest runway.

Tempe's selection was also spurred by a last-minute $18 million loan from the Cardinals to Tempe. The loan allowed Tempe to acquire the leasehold rights to the Papago Park Center land and, in turn, allowed the city to offer the land for the stadium at no cost to the TSA.

The loan tipped the TSA board in favor of the Tempe site. Several TSA board members say Tempe was second choice to a West Valley proposal that featured 40 acres of land donated by developer John F. Long.

Tempe's FAA deception was revealed in July when the FAA declared the original Papago Park Center site to be an aviation hazard -- just as construction on the stadium was set to begin.

Rather than picking a new location away from the airport, TSA and Tempe responded by moving the site 1,200 feet east on Papago Park Center property. Despite the shift, the site remains embroiled in controversy, construction is at a standstill and several legal challenges threaten to derail the entire project.

The $5,000 campaign contributions buttress contentions that Tempe and Salt River Project conspired to mislead voters over the city's proposed location for the stadium prior to last November's election.

SRP, sources say, didn't want to appear to be steering the stadium to its property prior to the election. SRP chairman Richard Silverman was a member of the governor's 38-member, Plan B task force that created the blueprint for Proposition 302.

Last August, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano told New Times that SRP wanted to keep the Papago Park Center site in the background for political reasons until after the November election. Giuliano has since denied making the statement.

SRP spokesman Jeff Lane says there is no connection between the campaign contributions and Papago Park Center's selection for the stadium. Lane says the contributions were made after Proposition 302 supporters asked for the funds.

SRP and Papago Park Center campaign contributions came at a crucial time as the Cardinals launched a last-minute advertising blitz in the weeks leading up to the election. Voters approved by less than a 1 percent margin a complicated public-financing plan to build a new football stadium.

The Cardinals were the primary contributor to the Arizona Wins campaign committee, spending more than $800,000. Arizona Wins spent more than $2.2 million to convince voters to levy more than $1 billion in new hotel and rental car taxes. The law also allows the TSA to divert more than $535 million in NFL player income taxes and sales taxes generated at the stadium over the next 30 years from the state's general fund and into stadium construction and operation.

The fate of the project likely will rest in a series of crucial decisions to be made in the next few weeks, including:

• The FAA is expected to determine whether the new Papago Park Center site poses a threat to aviation. The FAA last week released a flight simulation video showing the stadium to be perilously close to a departing aircraft with one engine disabled.

John Clancy, FAA air traffic division manager, had already stated in court records filed on September 15 that until FAA concludes its current study of the site, "the proposed stadium remains a presumed hazard to air navigation."

• The City of Phoenix is poised to seek a permanent court injunction blocking construction of the stadium if the FAA concludes the stadium poses a hazard to air travel or if it negatively affects airport and airline finances.

"Everyone connected with commercial aviation thinks the stadium will be a hazard and will force us to change the operation of the airport," says David Krietor, Sky Harbor aviation director.

The Air Line Pilots Association submitted a statement to the FAA last week opposing construction of the stadium.

• John F. Long has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the TSA. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Santana was scheduled to hold a hearing October 24 and is expected to issue a ruling shortly. The case is likely to be appealed. If Long wins, no TSA funds could be spent on the stadium.

• Several key state legislators are preparing to turn their budget-cutting pencils toward TSA during a special session in November. The Legislature could eliminate the diversion of NFL players' income taxes -- estimated to be $4 million this year. Such a move would damage TSA's ability to sell up to $250 million in construction bonds.

John F. Long says he has no doubt why the Cardinals are so interested in the Papago Park Center site.

After meeting last winter with the Cardinals' owners -- Bill and Michael Bidwill -- Long is convinced the team is more interested in obtaining development rights around the stadium than in the stadium itself.

"They wanted a joint venture with us on the property," says the 81-year-old Long, who has developed thousands of homes in Maricopa County over the last half-century.

Long, who has never had a joint venture partner, turned down the proposal.

"You guys play football, and we'll develop," Long says he told the Bidwills.

Soon after, the Bidwills turned their focus to Papago Park Center.

Unlike Long's property, the Papago Park Center land offers the team the opportunity to develop more than 1.2 million square feet of hotel, office and retail space adjacent to the 73,000-seat domed stadium.

"That is the reason why they wanted the Tempe site instead of ours," Long says. "There, they have the development rights. Here, they wouldn't."

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty