The Phoenix City Council's upcoming vote on whether to shell out $150 million to renovate Talking Stick Resort Arena is a big deal, even if you don't give a hoot about sports.
The Suns have been eyeing upgrades to the arena for years now, but their request came much closer to reality on Thursday when the city announced a deal to keep the National Basketball Association team in the Valley. Depending on who you talk to, the deal is either a giveaway to Robert Sarver, the wealthy and unpopular Suns owner, or a necessary investment in Phoenix's oldest and most iconic pro sports franchise.
The deal needs five of the council's eight votes at Wednesday's meeting to pass. So before the big show at City Hall, take a moment to catch up on the finer points in the debate.
What's in the deal?
Phoenix would pay $150 million for the renovations. That money would come from an existing tax on hotel rooms and rental cars. The Suns would put up $80 million for the arena. If you, like me, need a calculator for simple addition, that's $230 million total, with the city paying about 65 percent of those costs.
Lopsided? Yes. But there's a little more to it than that. The Suns ownership group also promises to cover any costs over the $230 million mark and and build a new practice facility (estimated $25 million to $50 million) to free up more calendar time for concerts, circuses, and novelty ice skating performances.
On top of those numbers, the city would pledge up to another $25 million, and the Suns another $12.5 million, for future repairs and upgrades. All together, that's about $175 million in public dollars.
If the deal passes, the Suns would promise to stay in Phoenix through 2037, with an option to extend the team's lease to 2042.
Who's for the deal and why?
Most of your council members have not said where they stand. Interim mayor Thelda Williams signaled her support when the plan.
"Over the last three years, the City of Phoenix has pursued an agreement for renovations at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and talks with the Suns over the past few months have become more productive," her office told Phoenix New Times in response to a request for comment. "I am committed to approving an agreement that will continue our partnership and foster the positive economic impact that having the Suns downtown has had for Phoenix. I’ve heard from many constituents who have expressed support to keep the Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena to maintain the economic viability of the region."
Council member Debra Stark said during an interview on KJZZ that she supports the deal.
Campaign contributions may offer hints as to where some of the other council members will vote. AZ Advocacy Network — a voting rights and election transparency organization — added up the dollars donated to each council member from Suns bosses, including Sarver, his wife, CEO Jason Rowley CFO Jim Pitman, and others.
Sal DiCiccio has taken the most money from the Suns C-Suite, followed by Laura Pastor, Debra Stark, Michael Nowakowski, Jim Waring, and interim mayor Williams. Vania Guevara and Felicita Mendoza, both of whom were appointed rather than elected, have not accepted any money from Suns executives.
Of course, while money talks, it's not a foolproof predictor of political behavior, and it's looking likely that one or more of our elected officials may vote according to principal rather than who's bankrolling their campaigns. (More on that in a moment.)
Some downtown businesses also support the arena upgrades, arguing that the Suns are an important part of Phoenix's cultural and civic identity. Basketball games and other events at the arena bring people downtown, where they spend money on beer and parking and other goods and services.
Three leaders of the Phoenix Community Alliance, a business group affiliated with Downtown Phoenix, Inc. (of which the Suns are a member), put it like this in an December 5 op-ed in the Arizona Republic : "What was once a collection of buildings, dominated by government offices, vacant lots, and adjacent historic neighborhoods, has become a vibrant, urban community we can all take pride in — not to mention the more than $160 million in annual tax revenue downtown generates to benefit our city, county and state."
Who's against the arena deal and why?
For one, the public. Local political PR guy Barrett Marson and Data Orbital released a survey Monday that found that 65 percent of Phoenix residents oppose spending public dollars on the arena.
Political momentum appears to be swinging against the deal as well. When it comes to big, expensive projects with taxpayer dollars attached to them, there's something for everyone to complain about. Liberal detractors would prefer $175 million go toward public services. Conservatives look at the deal see $175 million of government waste.
The Suns have become an election issue. Mayoral candidate Kate Gallego came out against the deal soon after details were announced. Her opponent, Daniel Valenzuela, has said he wouldn't support public money for sports arenas but hasn't commented specifically on the Suns plan. Valenzuela, who did not respond to a request for comment, took $6,200 campaign contributions from Sarver during the current election cycle, according to records.
Of those who actually decide what happens, council member Vania Guevara was the first to publicly state her opposition. Following a meeting with Sarver on Monday, Guevara wrote a blog post arguing spending $150 million on a sports arena would send a bad message to a city grappling with homelessness and climate change.
"Beyond just bad optics, it’s bad policy to ask residents to pay more for the basics while simultaneously funding a renovation for a team estimated to be worth nearly $1.3 billion," Guevara wrote.
Waring is a reliable vote against big government projects, and according to sources, DiCiccio is planning to vote against the deal, despite the cash he received from Suns executives. Mendoza is also leaning no, the same sources say. If all of that checks out, opponents would just need one more council member to come to their side to kill the deal.
What does this all mean?
Taxpayer-funded arena projects tend to foster lively debates because they cover everything of interest to Very Opinionated Uncles — sports, politics, and how they would be much better at running the city.
Let's begin with sports. Because the Suns are the oldest sports franchise in Phoenix, the team holds a special place in the hearts of locals. And there's a certain prestige that comes with being a city with a team in each of the big four professional leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL). That being said, for the last decade or so the Suns have been terrible, and many fans blame Robert Sarver for their team's woes. From the sports perspective, the question is: We love the Suns, but does Robert Sarver, the owner with the second worst team in the NBA, really deserve a big giveaway?
Then there's politics. For local governments, few decisions are as consequential, financially speaking, as a sports arena investment. And the mayoral front-runner, who would have the platform to set the city's agenda, opposes the deal. Some council watchers believe that's why interim mayor Williams and City Manager Ed Zuercher are trying to push this thing through in less than a week. Laurie Roberts of the Republic wrote a column suggesting as much on Monday.
Finally, there's how your uncle would be much better at running the city. We've been debating the wisdom of spending public dollars on sports stadiums ever since cities have been spent public dollars on sports stadiums. There's a whole genre of journalism devoted to finding waste and corruption involved with these types of projects. Supporters usually argue that arena projects stimulate the local economy, but economists tend to downplay the economic benefits. The aforementioned "pride" factor also weighs in the bigger picture debate over publicly-subsidized arenas.
All of this is likely to come up during Wednesday's meeting. Tune in for more.
(UPDATE: This article was updated soon after publication with a comment from the mayor's office.)