Arena projects touted as magnets for jobs

A shiny, new arena would not only draw top-end sports teams and international events, it would cement Las Vegas as an entertainment epicenter and create thousands of jobs, several applicants told Clark County commissioners Tuesday.

Four rival applicants presented their plans with competitive zeal, but their enthusiasm drew a guarded response from most commissioners, who expressed misgivings about publicly financing an arena.

Every proposal would require some sort of subsidy.

Commissioners asked staff to research the feasibility and legality of certain proposed methods of funding. They also agreed to have staff work with two applicants to craft advisory questions for voters about imposing a sales tax on the resort corridor.

A couple of commissioners seemed less inclined to back public funding after an MGM Mirage representative said it would result in unfair competition with local private arenas.

"If they want to privately fund it, then get them to do that," said Bill Hornbuckle, MGM’s chief marketing officer. "Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to flip the bill and assume the risk when a private entity is the beneficiary."

MGM is one of the largest casino companies in Nevada, with privately built arenas at Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand.

Texas-based IDM proposes a $750 million arena on the former Wet ‘n Wild site off Sahara Avenue. Las Vegas Arena Foundation, a nonprofit group, wants to build a $488 million arena on property that Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. owns behind Imperial Palace.

Developer Garry Goett is looking to build a $600 million arena on 260 acres he owns near Las Vegas Boulevard, south of the Strip.

Commissioners also heard from Cordish Cos., which aims to develop an arena downtown.

All of the proposed arenas would have 20,000-plus seats and could house professional basketball, hockey, rodeo and other events.

Chris Milam, head of IDM, hopes to fund his arena in part by reviving the redevelopment district that encompasses the site.

The arena foundation and Goett want to fund their projects with bonds and a sales tax imposed in the resort corridor. To gauge residents’ support, they both plan to put an advisory question on the November ballot.

Commissioners would have to approve the questions by July 19 if they are to be on the ballot.

MGM’s Hornbuckle said that building an arena is no guarantee that a top-tier team will come. Las Vegas could wind up with a half-billion-dollar complex with no sports team, just as Kansas City did, he said.

"The question is: Should public funds be used to fund the sixth arena in Clark County?" Hornbuckle said. "Do we need it?"

Hornbuckle’s arguments seemed to resonate with Commissioner Larry Brown.

"Public financing — it takes away the private competition," Brown said.

Brown reiterated his longtime opinion that the local market isn’t large enough to support a top-tier pro team. He questioned how much a sports team would enhance the area’s unique entertainment offerings and boost the local economy.

"A pro team is not the panacea for Las Vegas," Brown said.

In contrast, Commissioner Tom Collins expressed strong support for publicly funding a sports arena.

He called on county officials to have the same vision that past civic leaders had when they publicly financed venues that turned the area into a national destination.

"I am willing as an elected leader … and would consider and support some sort of public funding," Collins said. "I didn’t feel that way a few months ago."

Collins said he was convinced after meeting with the applicants.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak questioned whether it was legal to draw an arbitrary circle around businesses on the Strip and tax them differently from everyone else.

A county redevelopment official told him "yes" and pointed to the room tax that is imposed only on the Strip.

Sisolak also wondered whether the county could be held liable if an arena developer defaults on a bond.

County comptroller Ed Finger said, yes, the county would have to make good on the loan or else have its credit rating thrashed.

Milam said his project would require no new taxes and instead would use redevelopment for its intended purpose: to boost a blighted area. He also claimed he could beat his competitors, who would need until 2015 to get their new sales taxes approved in the state Legislature.

But Mary-Anne Miller, county counsel, said it’s too late this year to restore the mothballed redevelopment agency.

And Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she opposes using redevelopment money to fund an arena.

Commissioner Susan Brager expressed doubts about pinning a large arena’s financing on tourism, which is still down.

"I’m not against an arena," Brager said. "I just don’t think the funding mechanism is where it needs to be at this time."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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