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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fairgrounds Real Salt Lake soccer stadium deal on shaky ground in Capitol

(by Lee Davidson sltrib.com 2-12-15)

Action needed to allow Real Salt Lake to build a minor-league soccer stadium at the state fairgrounds in Salt Lake City took a step backward Thursday in the Legislature.

A Natural Resources budget committee voted down a proposal calling for the state to sign a 50-year lease with the Utah State Fairpark, the non-profit group that operates the state-owned fairgrounds. Its current lease expires in 2017.

The Fairpark needs the extension so it in turn can sign a 40-year lease with RSL to allow it to build, at the team's cost projected between $18 million and $23 million, an 8,000-seat arena for its minor-league Monarchs.

The Legislature already passed legislation in 2010 to allow up to a 50-year lease extension for the Fairpark, but it has never been issued. Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, asked the committee to send a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert asking that it be done now.

But some members worried that if a long-term stadium deal is signed, it could lock the state into making higher long-term subsidies of the State Fair and fairgrounds. Also, some worry the RSL deal skirts normal requirements to seek requests for proposals for the land from anyone who may be interested.

The Senate half of the committee approved Jenkins' proposal, but the House side voted it down — killing it for now.

Jenkins said lack of a lease "handicaps the State Fairpark, because every time someone comes there and wants to deal with them … their lease runs out in 2017. So why would I sign a lease with you?"

Jenkins said RSL has to field a minor-league soccer team next year. "If we choose to hold this thing up and go to requests for proposals … [the team] very well could just walk and leave this thing alone and go somewhere else. That's a very high probability."

Jenkins said that through the years, a variety of groups have had ideas for buildings or developments at the fairgrounds — but wanted the state to pay or bond for them.

"What makes this different is these guys [RSL] want to lease the property and they are going to build their own structure. That's what makes this so golden," he said. "In 50 years there's never been anything better."

But Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, expressed doubts.

"The State Fairpark has struggled. That's no secret," Greene said. He questioned if allowing a long-term lease with RSL would then require the state "to continually subsidize the Fairpark operations at a much higher rate to protect the interest of the stadium."

Jenkins said the Legislature answered that in 2010 when it voted to allow up to a 50-year lease with the Fairpark, showing its long-term commitment then — even though state administrators have not yet signed it.

He said that puts the Fairpark in the tough situation of being told to go out and raise money, without the ability to do many deals for lack of that long-term lease.

Jenkins headed a working group appointed to look at the RSL and Fairpark leases. He said members were divided over worries about future subsidies, and whether the RSL deal is good enough and went through proper channels.

Fairpark officials have told lawmakers that Real Salt Lake is willing to pay a $10,000-a-year lease, and guarantee at least $100,000-a-year in parking revenue, which would help reduce the state's current $670,000-a-year subsidy of the fairgrounds.

Also, the Fairpark could use the stadium during the fair. It would have 5,000 more seats than the current concert venue there, which could bring in more revenue. Fairpark officials said that could also allow bringing in higher-quality talent.

After 40 years, the state would also gain ownership of the stadium, Jenkins said.

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