They’re obsessed with thrill rides downtown these days.
First, there’s SlotZilla zipline, the 12-story eyesore in the shape of a slot machine that zings travelers the length of the Fremont Street Experience at speeds of up to 35 mph. Tickets are $20.
Not to be outdone, the city of Las Vegas appears poised to support a new kind of downtown ride: a giant money slide in the shape of a soccer stadium. The price for this contraption: $200 million with taxpayers footing responsibility for 75 percent of the bill. That’s $150 million for the privilege of bringing a privately owned professional soccer franchise to Las Vegas to play at a mostly publicly underwritten arena.
At least, that’s the malodorous deal currently floating in the air at City Hall as Mayor Carolyn Goodman and members of the City Council approach Wednesday’s meeting to discuss whether to go forward with a “nonbinding” plan with The Cordish Cos. and its partner, Findlay Sports & Entertainment.
If you’re like me, you can’t remember hearing the roar of community support for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, or for a $200 million stadium. Goodman and her council allies, however, appear to have clearly heard the plan of Cordish, which continues to hold the exclusive rights to develop a choice piece of real estate at Symphony Park after receiving generous contract extensions from the city.
The city’s generosity doesn’t stop there. For some reason, most of City Hall’s leaders can’t seem to do enough for Cordish and its evolving stadium proposal. It’s apparently even willing to put taxpayers on the hook for a majority of the costs.
When financial details of the proposal emerged this past week, the city revealed that it was rooting for the home team. A news release spun the numbers in the most favorable light and claimed the public would be responsible for just 41 percent of the project. The financial sheet included the likely inflated $102 million estimated cost of the team itself.
Remove that figure, and taxpayers are on the hook for 75 percent of this increasingly wild ride. In misleading the public, City Hall’s soccer fans have forfeited their credibility as allies of local taxpayers.
The development partners would be responsible for paying approximately $44 million, but if they ever fail to pay the annual rent the city — that is to say, taxpayers — would agree to make up the difference.
If the team struggles and the stadium doesn’t attract throngs of fans, well, who do you suppose will be stuck with the tab?
There are other components of the plan that appear to have been written by Cordish. For one, there’s the $3 million the city would kick in annually in hotel room tax revenues. It’s money earmarked for park maintenance: Not the kind of park you have to buy expensive tickets to enter, but one of those already built at taxpayer expense. Do city residents really want their public parks to be less maintained to help pay for a soccer stadium they never knew they needed?
Then there’s the strange and eerie absence of something that every controversial government development proposal always seems to have: an “independent” study that makes the case for, in this instance, the viability of a pro soccer team and stadium.
Councilman Bob Beers, the only elected official at City Hall who has been outspoken about the dubious details of the proposal, said Thursday he’s aware of no such study.
MLS weighs a number of factors before awarding expansion franchises. It weighs community involvement with soccer and its history of supporting minor league teams. It can be argued that Las Vegas has a healthy youth soccer tradition, but only recently showed any support for even a semipro club, the Las Vegas Legends. Previous professional soccer experiments in Southern Nevada have tanked.
Despite a number of troubling factors, the city continues to move forward with this expensive attraction.
“It’s all happening very quickly,” Beers said, adding that it’s no bargain for taxpayers — even those who are fans of soccer.
That rumble you feel is this ride gearing up. Keep your hands on your wallets. It could get rough from here.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.