City needs to rethink its ties to development group

The development buzz in Las Vegas these days is focused almost exclusively on the growing influence of Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project, but there’s another big player on the scene: The Cordish Cos.

You wouldn’t be blamed for forgetting the name. After plenty of fawning and fanfare about its big ideas for Symphony Park, Cordish’s vision has yet to leave the drawing board. There are reasons the development giant has slept, to be sure. The recession hit Las Vegas especially hard, and finding funding for commercial projects lofty and lilliputian alike vanished in the economic malaise.

But in the past year battered Las Vegas has been rising from the canvas, and other downtown projects are taking physical shape. Hsieh has emerged as the area’s big idea man, and he’s producing results.

Cordish, meanwhile, remains something of an enigma here despite its success elsewhere. Its arena idea for Symphony Park is an abstraction even as MGM Resorts International has begun to move forward with a tangible plan for a 20,000-seat arena. At UNLV, a formidable committee has begun meeting to draft the future of a stadium on campus.

Cordish faces what looks like the near-impossible financial challenge of building an arena without a professional sports team as an anchor tenant, and the Exclusive Development Agreement with the city is in the midst of expiring.

From Chris Milam’s Henderson sports park debacle to examples in cities across the country, arenas without franchise agreements rarely materialize.

An early plan, according to one city official, called for Cordish to come up with 50 percent of the arena’s financing with the city floating approximately $150 million in bonds to cover the rest from a property tax increase and a special sales tax district in the immediate area. Most of the time, the incremental tax increase pays off the bonds with relatively little risk to taxpayers.

The city received $50,000 in exchange for the five-year EDA. Recession or not, that’s chump change.

Will Cordish produce a credible new vision? Will the city force its hand, up the stakes, or move on entirely?

We’ll find out in the coming weeks.

For now, at least some city players appear to be exercising their right to remain silent. Deadline calls Monday to Deputy City Manager Scott Adams and City Manager Elizabeth Fretwell weren’t returned. Adams heads the city’s urban redevelopment. Fretwell is the executive director of the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency.

City Councilman Bob Beers, however, isn’t shy about expressing his skepticism about Cordish, which he believes needs to produce more than good intentions if it wants to re-sign an EDA. Beers, a CPA, has emerged as a budget and policy wonk on the council. He recently asked a Cordish representative specific questions about its plan.

“It’s a very different world than it was when these agreements were entered into,” Beers said. “The council itself has significantly changed in composition.”

Beers makes it clear he’s not confident Cordish has anything viable on the front burner for downtown. He believes the city should “revisit the question of what that Symphony Park corner is going to look like.”

Cordish hasn’t turned a shovel or poured a foundation. And it has paid a pittance for the privilege of controlling a large, potentially highly lucrative piece of real estate. It deserves no special favors from the city.

It would be irresponsible for the city to renew its EDA without at least requiring much tighter terms and a higher fee agreement. Better yet, it feels like a great time for the city to throw open the area to other suitors as downtown’s national profile rises by the day.

Cordish needs to considerably up the ante in Symphony Park, or fold its hand and leave the development game to the real players.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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