County KO’s plans for three sports arenas

Three sports arena proposals were knocked out as quietly as a losing team in a lopsided game on Tuesday.

All but one Clark County commissioner stood firm on rejecting any arena plan that would require public money, dooming the three arenas proposed on or near the Strip.

Commissioners refused to take any action to aid the applicants, including putting an advisory question on the November ballot to gauge the public’s interest in an arena.

The three proposals would have required some subsidy for building a 20,000-seat arena for professional basketball, hockey and other events.

Las Vegas Arena Foundation and developer Garry Goett had given up pursuing arena plans this year in the face of the commission’s anti-public-funding stance. The group and the developer aimed to finance their projects through a sales tax on the resort corridor and bonds.

Developer Chris Milam hoped that the commission would be more receptive to using money from a redevelopment district to build an arena at the former Wet n’ Wild site. But his hopes were dashed.

“I’m extraordinarily disappointed,” Milam said. “We made it riskless and costless, and yet nothing.”

One prospect remains, although it’s proposed for downtown Las Vegas. Cordish Cos. is in the midst of a two-year study on how to build and finance the project.

Proponents have argued that the area needs a new arena to attract top-tier pro teams, to keep events such as the National Finals Rodeo from defecting and to create more than 3,000 construction jobs.

The big snag was public financing, which most commissioners resisted during the current budget crunch that has cost almost 300 county employees their jobs in the past year.

The Arena Foundation, a nonprofit group, sought to build a $488 million arena on land that Harrah’s Entertainment owns behind Imperial Palace. Goett wanted to build a $600 million arena on property he owns on the Strip.

Both rivals proposed putting an advisory question on the ballot asking residents about creating a sales tax that would mainly affect tourists.

Milam wanted the county to revive the mothballed redevelopment district off Sahara Avenue. Tax money from the district would begin flowing to the arena after it opened and total $125 million over two decades. No bonds would be used.

Milam said the arena he proposed would require 15 to 20 percent of the costs to be publicly paid, whereas most top-level arenas have a much larger portion paid with public funds.

Commissioner Tom Collins, the lone outspoken fan of a new events arena, requested that an advisory question be put to voters asking them whether they wanted an arena and, if so, how it should be financed.

A sports arena is needed for Las Vegas to grow as an entertainment hub, Collins said. Thomas & Mack Center, Cashman Field and some local convention centers are getting old and outdated, he said.

“I think when there’s an opportunity right now to ignite something, we should ignite it,” Collins said.

But his fellow commissioners shot down his request.

“We don’t legislate by ballot,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said, arguing that it was the commission’s job to make hard decisions.

Giunchigliani, a strong labor advocate, wasn’t swayed by the promise of an arena generating thousands of construction jobs. After the arena is finished, she said, those jobs go away and all that is left is 80 or so service jobs. Commissioner Steve Sisolak defended Thomas & Mack, saying it was still a good sports venue. He repeated his opposition to using public money.

“I believe firmly it should be funded privately,” Sisolak said.

Top-end sports arenas around the country vary in the amount of public funds they receive. The Staples Center in Los Angeles covered $58 million of its $375 million cost using public money. The Cowboys Stadium in Dallas got $425 million in public financing to help pay for the stadium’s construction .

Virtually all NBA arenas were built with a mix of private and public money, said Robert Sarver, majority owner of the Phoenix Suns.

Sarver oversaw a committee that studied whether Las Vegas could support an NBA team and concluded it was a strong market.

Still, a 10-page county staff report was mostly critical of building a new local arena to draw pro teams.

There is no guarantee that an NBA or an NHL team would come if an arena was built, the report states. It points to Kansas City’s Sprint Center as an example of one that didn’t pan out.

The report picked apart the three applicants, especially the two seeking to finance the venture with a new sales tax.

Estimated revenues from the taxes wouldn’t cover the bond debt, according to the report. And the increase would bump the county’s sales tax to more than 9 percent, making it the seventh highest in the nation.

In the report, county staffers note that the existing five arenas can serve 63,000 patrons and are underutilized, making it questionable whether an additional 20,000 seats are needed.

A publicly funded arena also would pull business away from the private arenas, the report says. And despite being billed as a stand-alone venue, it would financially benefit the nearest casinos.

The report appeared to cement most commissioners’ resistance.

“I just don’t think the timing could be worse,” Sisolak said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at or 702-455-4519.


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