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July 28, 2014

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COUNTY GOVERNMENT:

Strip sports arena has very little support

Comptroller’s report questions need, bashes idea of public funding

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Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Chris Giunchigliani

Chris Giunchigliani

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Even as Clark County commissioners discuss Tuesday whether to seek public input on building an arena along the Strip, a development group headed by a group of civic leaders says it will shelve its arena proposal for lack of commissioners’ support.

The Las Vegas Arena Foundation, whose board members include former County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury and former County Manager Thom Reilly, has decided the time isn’t right, said Marybel Batjer, also a board member. The foundation wanted to build an arena on land donated by Harrah’s, funding it with taxes collected from a district that would need to be created along the Strip.

But the foundation hasn’t been able to land the support of the County Commission.

“The harsh reality is there is no appetite right now among the commissioners, we understand, to support any public funding for an arena,” Batjer said. “We’re disappointed by that, but that’s the harsh reality.”

That leaves two arena proposals, one planned at the site of the old Wet ’n Wild water park south of the Sahara (Silver State Arena by International Development Management), and one south of Interstate 215 on Las Vegas Boulevard near Cactus Avenue (Olympia Development). County sources said Olympia Development, which would also rely on a resort-corridor tax to fund bonds issued by the county, is considering pulling out, too.

When they discuss the arena Tuesday, commissioners will delve into the idea of asking voters in November if they would support a taxing district. Results of that question would go to state lawmakers who meet in 2011.

Any decision on a publicly funded arena is fraught with political mine shafts. Voting thumbs-up, even if it’s only to give voters the right to say yes or no, at a time when people have lost jobs and homes because of the economy, can make a politician appear disconnected from constituents. Voting no will lead some to grouse that the county is failing to help create jobs and is short-sighted.

Commissioners will be armed, however, with a detailed arena analysis prepared by county Comptroller Ed Finger. The 10-page document shreds the idea of public funding and raises questions about the need for an arena.

In his carefully worded evisceration, Finger raises serious doubts about the validity of an advisory question because there’s been no inventory of businesses that would be subject to the tax rate. He also noted that tax rates suggested by would-be developers “do not provide adequate revenue coverage to issue the governmental bonds in the amount asked for.”

Other issues raised by Finger:

• More public funding would likely be needed to meet infrastructure demands of a new arena.

• Raising taxes, even in a specific district, would limit the ability of the county to create another tax in the future for other public purposes.

• The need for an arena is “questionable,” with no guarantee that an NBA or NHL team would be a tenant.

• If the taxes failed to cover payment of the debt, Clark County “would likely feel compelled” to make up the difference.

In his analysis, Finger hints that the Silver State Arena proposal near Sahara might be more to the county’s liking. Instead of requiring the creation of a tax district, it would merely need the county to revive its Redevelopment Agency, then collect incremental property taxes in a designated redevelopment area that includes the Wet ’n Wild site. Plus, the developer would not require any of the tax contributions until the building is finished; and the contribution amount would be limited to $125 million. If the arena couldn’t pay its bills, the county would not be on the hook.

The idea for a professional sports arena on the Strip has collected about 1,400 supporters on a Facebook page dedicated to its construction: “Las Vegas Needs an Arena in the Heart of the Strip!”

Outside of virtual reality, the arena idea is struggling for traction among commissioners.

Steve Sisolak said he doesn’t like the idea of turning over a tough decision to voters on a ballot question. “That’s what we were elected to do,” he said.

Resurrecting the redevelopment district doesn’t sit well with Chris Giunchigliani, who pushed to shutter the county’s Redevelopment Agency to save money more than a year ago.

“Times are tough and I don’t want to divert several million dollars” from schools or University Medical Center, she said, referring to the fact that redevelopment districts siphon off increases in property tax revenue for specific projects such as an arena.

“And do we even need it?” she said. “Or will this turn into another empty skeleton on the Strip?”

Commissioner Tom Collins says many successful ventures have required public assistance.

“I’m not saying I’m supporting tax funding, but I want a discussion,” Collins said. “Then maybe we’ll take action on the voter advisory question.”

Muddying the picture for commissioners: Finger said an arena could take up to $9 million in revenue from UNLV, because it would skim business away from the university’s Thomas & Mack Center.

The Thomas & Mack has hosted the National Finals Rodeo for years. The fear is that other venues, such as the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium, could take that business away.

“We need to be thinking of the future and how we are going to keep up with the NFR, the Country Music Awards and many other events,” Batjer said.

Collins said he’s thinking of the future, too. But he’s “not afraid of Jerry Jones,” the Cowboys owner.

“Because the Cowboys are not going to let someone else take over that stadium from football for three weeks in December,” he said. “Nobody else has the amenities we do. But we have to keep moving forward, too, and an arena might move us in that direction.”

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