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Las Vegas bid for MLS stadium faces challenge in Golden Knights owner

Updated June 5, 2019 - 10:20 pm

Las Vegas officials will negotiate a proposal to build a new stadium near downtown that will be used by a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, although they face local competition.

For city leaders, the ambitious project represents an opportunity to build upon momentum rolling in the heart of the city, where an exposition center, hotel towers, apartment complexes and a canopy upgrade to the Fremont Street Experience are all underway.

The latest plan turns attention to the Cashman District, just north of the downtown core, what city redevelopment chief Bill Arent calls the “next chapter” — an area where sports, technology and entertainment collide. The stadium would be built near the existing Cashman Field.

“This is just a taste of what our city could be,” said Councilman Cedric Crear, who represents Ward 5, where the proposed development is planned. “It’s going to galvanize our city if we are able to be so fortunate to have one of these (MLS) licenses.”

But on Wednesday, as the City Council unanimously signed off on launching a 180-day window for talks between the city and project manager The Renaissance Companies Inc., they faced a stark reminder of how competitive a bid for pro soccer could be.

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley confirmed to the Review-Journal that he, too, was pursuing an MLS franchise to play either in the Raiders stadium or possibly elsewhere in town.

The hunt effectively frames the race for a 30th MLS expansion team in new terms: Las Vegas will not only be jockeying with other cities still in the running for the final slot, it will be competing against itself.

If there was any concern from city officials, they did not show it: “I love competition,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman told reporters. “We love that he’s interested.”

Floyd Kephart, chairman of Renaissance, similarly downplayed the revelation of a new contender in the race.

“I was encouraged. I think it just shows the reach and the way that MLS has taken hold here, and it shows great support,” Kephart said. “If they see that MLS would work in Las Vegas, then why shouldn’t we?”

Still, Councilman Bob Coffin wondered aloud if Foley’s interest might have arrived as “some sort of sucker punch.” Foley said his group “would never do something that would (be) cause for any amount of animosity.”

Long in the works

Conversations between Renaissance and Las Vegas had been underway for 17 months before Wednesday’s exclusive negotiating agreement was approved, according to Kephart. City officials are convinced the project has what the league wants: a soccer-specific stadium.

“This hasn’t been a last-minute effort,” Goodman said. “We learned a lot from the first negotiation to get a team.”

In 2015, MLS passed on locating a team in Las Vegas at a proposed soccer stadium in Symphony Park. The failed venture cost the city $3.1 million, and some money was used toward a public relations blitz to sell the venue to the public.

But Goodman said the city had not adequately explained that the hotel room tax planned for the project would not affect residents. Also, Symphony Park — groomed mainly as an arts and cultural district — was not the appropriate location, she added.

Now officials believe they have pinpointed the perfect match. Crear called Cashman District’s central location ideal not only for soccer but also for the residential and retail components associated with the broader plan.

By the conclusion of talks, the city and Renaissance hope that a deal will be reached with Baupost Group, the hedge fund led by billionaire Seth Klarman. Kephart said the next six months will be spent planning the first phase of development, submitting an application to MLS and identifying costs.

The financial structure is still hazy. It’s not clear if city officials will suggest room taxes again, lean on federal tax incentives available to the district or do something else. But it will be a central issue moving forward even as Arent said Baupost has money to finance the project and Goodman called private investment key.

“Just try not to take a whole lot of taxpayers’ money,” Mayor Pro Tem Lois Tarkanian warned. “Because that’s going to be the big question.”

Insisting the project must be economically viable to the city and beneficial to the community, Kephart said he believed that taxpayers would be supportive.

With or without it

The Las Vegas Lights FC has played at Cashman Field since last year as an expansion team in a league one tier below the MLS. The plan is for the team to be sold to Baupost if a development deal is reached, play at Cashman Field until the new stadium is ready and then use the old field for practice upon joining the MLS as its latest expansion franchise.

While Kephart said that “we feel very comfortable about getting MLS,” a successful pitch to join the league is apparently not the prerequisite to moving a deal forward.

The preliminary stadium proposal calls for a covered roof with a retractable field and 25,000-person seating capacity.

If they do not get MLS approval, Kephart said the developer still plans to build a scaled-back version of the stadium for the Lights. But a contingency plan is not the focal point for city officials, who have cast their effort, announced just last week, as a signal that Las Vegas is a major sports city ready to attract other professional leagues in the years ahead.

“It’s just a matter of time before we get an MLS team, before we get an NBA team, before we get a Major League Baseball team,” Crear said. “Las Vegas is that city.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Review-Journal columnist Ed Graney contributed to this report.

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