Phoenix City Council Members Demand Talking Stick Arena Details

Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 9:04pm
Updated: Thursday, December 14, 2017 - 5:00pm
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Lauren Loftus/KJZZ
Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix.

After months of silence, we are hearing snippets about negotiations between the city and the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix contends state law allows them to keep details about arena options confidential during the negotiation process, but council members are complaining they’re being kept in the dark.

KJZZ Downtown Correspondent Christina Estes has been following the issue. She was at yesterday’s council meeting where some members expressed frustration with the process.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Yes, Councilwoman Kate Gallego, who is running for mayor, led the charge. In a nutshell, she asked, "Where’s the report?" Then several other councilmembers jumped in. It’s been ten months since the council approved a $75,000 contract for a consultant to study arena options. Then, yesterday they approved  another $125,000.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: What is the consultant supposed to be studying?

ESTES: Let’s go back to February. That’s when the council hired the consultant, Barrett Sports Group, to study a range of options for the city-owned arena where the Suns play. The "to-do" list was supposed to include what it would cost to renovate or build a new arena for basketball and then also what it would cost to renovate or build new for basketball and hockey, presumably for the Coyotes who have expressed interest in leaving Glendale.

GOLDSTEIN: This arena review stems from the Suns’ owner Robert Sarver saying we need a better place to play.

ESTES: Yes. The Suns have a potential out in their lease agreement with the city. There’s something called an "obsolescence clause" that kicks in in about five years. Basically, it says if the building is obsolete the team can leave.

GOLDSTEIN: Since "obsolescence clause" is a legal phrase, I’m guessing the definition is open to debate?

ESTES: I think it’s safe to say it’s open to negotiation. Most people think of obsolete as being out of date or no longer useful. That could mean one thing to a team playing in a 25 year old facility and something else to a mayoral candidate like Kate Gallego.

Here she is asking staff to provide details from the consultant.

Kate Gallego says, “When this item first went forward we were told they would come up with a list of costs for the arena. For example, how much we would need to have a good functioning plumbing system which seemed like a reasonable cost to me and then other costs which I for one would not prioritize in these difficult budget times such as spending a lot of money upgrading suites, luxury suites, and I had asked to get a list of the work product and have not been able to see that yet.”

Councilman Sal DiCiccio quickly backed her up, saying it’s a reasonable request and others joined in. Assistant City Manager Milton Dohoney, Junior, told the council they’ve identified some things that have need to be done now — like plumbing issues.

However, Milt Dohoney says, “There are other things, however, that have been identified as clearly needed in terms of infrastructure but we have not taken steps to begin actions on those because it was pointed out to us that those would better be addressed in the realm of renovation if one was going to occur.”

What he’s saying is, ‘We know there are things that need upgraded or fixed, but we don’t want to start messing around until we know whether we’re doing a big renovation and if so, who’s going to pay for what."

While no specific dollar amount has been floated for arena renovations, most people at city hall use the phrase "hundreds of millions of dollars."

GOLDSTEIN: Has the consultant ruled out anything? Like hockey?

ESTES: That’s what Councilman Jim Waring wanted to know. Listen to this exchange between Waring and City Manager Ed Zuercher.

Waring says, “Are we doing the hockey or not? Because that was much discussed, haven’t heard much about it recently.”

Zuercher says, “Mayor, Councilman Waring, the whole question of hockey is actually part of negotiations with the Suns, so I don’t want to get into that at this point.”

GOLDSTEIN: We know Councilman Jim Waring is against spending public money on sports facilities. Who else have you heard from?

ESTES: I’ve reached out to all councilmembers at least twice, maybe three times since October to get their take on using tax revenue from hotel stays and car rentals to either pay for arena upgrades or to build new.  Kate Gallego has been the only one to join Waring in the ’absolutely not’ camp.

Two others — Councilwoman Deb Stark and Councilman Sal DiCiccio — are open to renovations if it’s what they consider a good deal for taxpayers with the team splitting the cost. In an email last month, Councilman Daniel Valenzuela who is also running for mayor, wrote, in part,  “The practice of placing the undue financial burden of sports venues on our tax payers needs to end.”

Then, during yesterday’s meeting he voted to spend more on the consultant’s study, saying it it’s an important issue and Phoenix needs to continue to maximize efforts at the city-owned facility.

Finally, I should mention I have received no responses from Vice Mayor Laura Pastor and Councilmembers Thelda Williams and Michael Nowakowski.

GOLDSTEIN: Any definitive yeses?

ESTES: No one’s saying yes because they’re still waiting to see a list with costs. While Mayor Greg Stanton is arguably Suns biggest cheerleader seems he repeated his pitch that the arena is about more than basketball games.

Mayor Greg Stanton says, “That building is currently busy over 200 nights per year and obviously it supports many businesses, many people are employed inside and outside of that arena as a result of how busy it is.”

I’ve been trying to verify that number — that over 200 nights per year because I’ve heard it a lot. I asked Phoenix to provide a calendar of arena events and they directed me to the Suns because the team operates the arena. I explained to the Suns that the city uses this ‘over 200’ phrase and I’d like to know how they come up with it. After three requests over a two-month period  I’m still waiting.

GOLDSTEIN: So, what are next steps with the council and negotiations?

ESTES: The city manager told council members they will get an update –including a list of immediate needs and costs - when they meet in executive session next month.

GOLDSTEIN: Executive session is behind closed doors, right?

ESTES: Yes, so what they discuss is considered confidential while they’re still negotiating but based on the passionate comments at yesterday’s meeting I expect we’ll hear details as soon as a decision to make a deal with the Suns — or not — is reached.

GOLDSTEIN: Christina, thank you.

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