Commissioners hear proposals for new sports arena

Clark County commissioners seemed receptive Tuesday to plans for building a new sports arena but none of them was a fan of funding it with public money.

Two companies and a nonprofit group propose 20,000-seat arenas for sites on or near the Strip, all of them calling for tax subsidies.

They are vying to build an arena that would cost at least a half a billion dollars and could house professional basketball, hockey, rodeo and other events such as concerts.

Commissioners asked staff to gather more details, including how a sports complex would be financed and the competitive impact it would have on the Thomas & Mack Center.

But several expressed reluctance to spend public dollars on an events center at a time when the county faces an estimated $200 million budget shortfall.

"I have concerns about public money in any project," Commissioner Rory Reid said, adding he wants to know how it might take away from services.

Commissioner Susan Brager agreed, saying health and education must take priority.

"I think an arena is a great idea if the public isn’t paying for it," Brager said.

Comptroller Ed Finger will report back to the commission, and proponents will be invited to make presentations on their projects at the board’s May 18 meeting.

Proponents say the area needs a new, high-end arena to lure pro sports teams and prevent cities with larger stadiums from stealing premier local events such as the National Finals Rodeo.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, though, repeated his concerns about the county funding an arena that competes with existing venues.

Sisolak said he wants officials from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to weigh in because the university has invested heavily in the Thomas & Mack.

Gerry Bomotti, UNLV’s vice president of finance, said trying to convert Thomas & Mack into a pro sports arena would be too costly.

"It would be more feasible to tear down and rebuild," Bomotti said.

He echoed a 2006 report by Las Vegas Events that concluded the center lacks the space and amenities to house pro sports teams, and that renovating it would be impractical.

Texas-based IDM hopes to build a $750 million arena at the former Wet ‘n Wild water park near Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

Sue Lowden, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and her husband own the property. They have offered to use the land as collateral to borrow $350 million and invest the money in the arena, said Chris Milam, IDM’s president.

Milam wants the county to revive the scrapped redevelopment district encompassing the site. That way, about $9.3 million a year in property tax revenue generated in the district could help pay for construction.

Milam said he would like to begin work by August so the Silver State Arena will be open by fall 2012.

He said about 85 percent of the financing would be private, whereas most arenas in the country are 85 percent publicly funded.

Another arena is being proposed on 10 acres that Harrah’s Entertainment owns behind the Imperial Palace. Harrah’s would donate the land, worth about $182 million.

Former County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury founded a group that is spearheading the $488 million project.

The arena would be paid for with a revenue bond and a seven-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax imposed only in the resort corridor.

Although the sales tax would affect only Strip businesses, a countywide advisory question would be put on a ballot to gauge public sentiment. To place the measure on the ballot, the commission must submit the question to the elections department in behalf of Woodbury’s group by July 19.

Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax said the county should submit it sooner. That way his staff would have time to put together citizens’ panels to write arguments for and against the question, as required by law.

Gary Goett is driving the third proposal. He wants to build a $600 million arena on 260 acres he owns on Las Vegas Boulevard South.

Goett said he could pay for it with an entertainment tax on the resort corridor. He declined to give details other than the tax would be no higher than the one that Woodbury’s group proposes.

Commissioner Larry Brown, a former minor-league baseball player, said no one would argue that a top-notch stadium wouldn’t be good for the community. But public financing is the sticking point, he said.

Brown said just because the board is willing to review plans doesn’t mean it’s ready to sink tax money into an arena.

"We have plenty of arenas, and they meet current demand," Brown said. "If we’re going to the next level — NHL, NBA, NFR, super concerts, soccer — that’s a huge step."

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said the county should study arenas in other states to see how they were funded. Most had some sort of subsidies, she said.

Reid asked that staffers analyze how viable the arena’s funding sources would be in the current financial markets.

"We need to figure out if these are proposals or actual projects that can get built," Reid said. "There’s been a lot of talk about an arena for a long time."

Review-Journal writer Alan Choate contributed to this report. Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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