Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith supports push that could lead to a rebuilt Delta Center for NBA, NHL

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Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith spoke in favor of a bill that aims to create a subsidy for a rebuilt stadium that would keep the team in Downtown Salt Lake City for the long-term and help to attract more pro sports to the capital city.

A bill unveiled late Wednesday on Capitol Hill would allow Salt Lake City to raise its sales tax rate by 0.5 percent, which is expected to raise up to $1 billion over the next 30 years. The bill was rushed to a committee and was unanimously approved Thursday evening.

Multiple sources say the money raised by the bill would likely lead to a rebuilt Delta Center so that it’s modernized and suitable for professional basketball, professional hockey and, likely, as a venue for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

Smith, who bought the Jazz in 2020 and recently emerged as a leading contender to bring a National Hockey League franchise to Utah, spoke in favor of the bill during the Senate hearing.

“I’m super excited to look at this opportunity to work together with both our county Mayor Jenny Wilson and [Salt Lake City Mayor] Erin Mendenhall and try to figure out how to have a long-term solution for multiple professional sports teams in Downtown for the long-term,” Smith said.

The statements stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of staying Downtown. But they marked a major step forward in the city’s years-long attempt to retain and expand professional sports in its boundaries.

In his quest to run the Jazz and attract an NHL team, Smith has considered defecting to the suburbs with either or both of the teams, with the logical landing spot being the Point of the Mountain near Draper.

Mendenhall, who recently started her second term, has been vocal about her desire for the Jazz to remain on the west edge of Downtown, playing the arena that sits on land the city owns.

She spoke alongside Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who sponsored SB272.

“It’s notable that this Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City and the state flag champion from Riverton are sitting side by side ready to go to an NHL hockey game in an even more vibrant Downtown Salt Lake City,” Mendenhall said Thursday.

McCay’s sponsorship of the bill is perhaps surprising, given his district includes the Point of the Mountain near his home in Riverton.

McCay choked up while presenting the bill after he reflected on the potential for three professional sports teams within 1.5 miles of each other winning championships.

Pitching his bill to a group of tax-weary Republicans in the Legislature, McCay suggested professional sports lead to vibrant cities that benefit the entire state.

“Regions thrive when they have a strong urban center,” McCay said. “Salt Lake City is our urban core. It’s our capital city and it belongs to all of Utah.”

Currently, 10 NHL teams share an arena with their NBA counterparts.

The bill had an added sense of urgency, as the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes are playing in a college stadium, with capacity well below every other team in the league. Smith has publicly offered to buy the team, which could play as soon as next season in the Delta Center even if it wasn’t rebuilt and still bring in far more fans than the Coyotes currently see.

But McCay’s bill is aimed at the long-term, creating a tax-increment district that would funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to an area that includes the Delta Center and up to 50 acres around it.

Sports and entertainment district

McCay’s bill was written specifically about Salt Lake City.

It would allow Salt Lake City to create a stadium and entertainment district and raise its sales tax by as much as 0.5 percent. That would put the city’s sales tax at 8.25 percent, near the highest in the state.

Funds from that tax hike could only be used to build a new stadium or improve an existing one. The bill only applies to stadiums that are home to NHL or NBA teams.

The bill would allow Salt Lake City to create a district that must include an NBA or NHL stadium and up to 50 acres nearby. The tax revenue would be used to improve the district and stadium.

That district could include five city blocks, an area that could include the western wing of the Salt Palace Convention Center to the east of the Delta Center, as well as the Gateway Mall and a 10-acre surface parking lot owned by the LDS Church northeast of the Delta Center.

It’s still not clear where Smith would build other revenue-making opportunities through mixed-use development near the Delta Center.

A representative for the Gateway said the mall wasn’t for sale and wasn’t under contract.

Mendenhall and City Councilwoman Victoria Petro both specifically mentioned Japantown when speaking to the bill on Thursday. The Japanese Church of Christ, Asian Association of Utah and Salt Lake Buddhist Church all own land east of the Delta Center.

“I’m especially thrilled about the opportunity to honor our Japanese-American heritage here by revitalizing the Downtown area where they have historically inhabited,” Petro said.

“They will have a seat at the table,” Mendenhall said.

The subsidies are flowing like Martinelli’s

It’s not just Smith who would be getting a billion-dollar subsidy for a stadium where teams worth multiple billions of dollars that are owned by billionaires would play sports.

Legislators made clear this week they’re ready to throw a 10-figure subsidy at a redevelopment on Salt Lake City’ west side that could also attract another professional sports team to the city.

Last week, the Larry H. Miller Companies unveiled renderings that showed the location of a Major League Baseball stadium fronting the Jordan River on North Temple.

The renderings showed the real estate and entertainment company will play a major role in redeveloping what is known as the Power District, 100 acres of land that the owner, Rocky Mountain Power, has been working to redevelop in recent years.

The Millers said last week they planned to invest $3.5 billion in the west side. Days later, legislators unveiled a bill that would add another $1 billion in subsidies.

That bill, HB562, is more complicated than McCay’s and involves an even larger footprint that also encompasses the Fairpark.

The subsidy would come in the form of bonds paid for by a hike in the statewide sales tax. The bill would also create a new governing body for land that’s currently under the purview of the city, siphoning away some of the city’s land use and taxing authority in the process.

Both bills have to pass through a Republican-dominated Legislature before reaching the desk of the state’s sports-fanatic governor.

But the region may be so thirsty for professional sports that opponents may not assemble a united campaign against the public financing.

Even a lobbyist for the Utah Taxpayers Association said the notoriously tax-averse group wouldn’t oppose McCay’s bill.

That should tell you something.

Email Taylor Anderson

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.