South Tempe bookstore owner among those airing concerns
Pro and con viewpoints on the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team’s proposed relocation to an area near downtown Tempe are reaching a higher pitch than in previous weeks, resulting in groups staking out their positions through meetings, online discussion sites and high-profile public sessions.
Most recent of those was a meeting held at Arizona Community Church, organized by residents opposed to the project. As background, the team is looking to relocate to downtown Tempe, taking up the northeast corner of Rio Salado and Priest and joined by an entertainment district that would allow for a new arena for the NHL team as well as restaurants, shopping and entertainment that are being described as a way to rejuvenate the landfill that currently holds the space. Tempe City Council voted 7-0 to have a referendum for the $2.1 billion development project, which is coming up on May 16. In the meantime, Tempe 1st, a grass roots, all-volunteer, bipartisan coalition of Tempe residents, opposes the propositions. The Coyotes currently play in Arizona State University’s Mullet Arena while they wait for city of Tempe Props 301, 302 and 303 to be acted upon by voters before moving forward.
The Coyotes, who previously had an arena in Glendale, were forced to relocate after they were threatened with being locked out of the city-owned arena for what were said to be late and missing tax payments. If passed, Prop 301 would allow for the proposed 46-acre plot of land to change from “commercial” to “mixed-use,” opening it for a professional sports franchise and entertainment. Prop 302 would allow voters to either approve or reject the zoning request for the plotted land, and Prop 303 would allow voters to accept or reject the sale of the land to Bluebird Development, LLC. All three would need to pass for any progress on development to continue. At a Feb. 16 meeting at Arizona Community Church, members of Tempe 1st indicated they have been reviewing the fine print of the various measures, and are concerned with the effects of the new corporate development would have on both Tempe residents and ASU.
The biggest issue, according to Tempe 1st, is that Tempe would face deterioration to the area’s quality of life. Downtown Tempe, specifically Rio Salado, they say, accommodates one of the busiest intersections in Tempe, with cars often taking shortcuts through nearby neighborhoods. Alongside is the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, which only offers two exits through the immediate area.
Tempe officials have said that Tempe would be able to handle the increased traffic anticipated for the Coyotes’ 41 home games and traveling fans during the season, but there are no plans to alleviate the pre-existing congestion. With the potential influx of traffic through downtown, large corporate businesses that would follow also would be affected. Gayle Shanks of the Changing Hands bookstore said she faced this dilemma first hand and fears the same could result from the Coyotes’ presence. Shanks’ store opened in 1974 on Fifth Street, she said, and then moved onto Mill Avenue in 1978. During the 1980s when she was negotiating for a larger space, she said, the developer rented the larger space to a large chain store.
“The developers downtown, with the blessing of the redevelopment director in Tempe (at that time), decided that a Borders (bookstore) was a good option for the downtown,” Shanks said. “A lot of chains (moved in) after (Tempe operated as) a very small business-oriented town for years and years,” she said. When the chains moved in, the independent and locally owned businesses moved out, according to Shanks, and eventually so did the chains. That left a lot of empty space, and had ASU not needed more room and ended up turning that into office occupancy, the downtown would’ve been a ghost town, she said. Shanks noted that her personal experience has left her looking at downtown development “very differently” than some fellow Tempe residents.
As to other notable issues, some of the group attending the session said that additional housing has been proposed, but it would not fit the demographic of downtown Tempe’s younger residents. Housing prices would skyrocket, they said, making the area unaffordable for college students and those who are working for minimum wage, which Shanks said would also affect South Tempe. “I’m all for development,” Shanks added. “But I’m all for sustainable development.” Sustainability was another key focus point of the Tempe 1st group. Some told the group that Coyotes’ owner and businessman Alex Meruelo does not have a sound history of payments, citing Glendale among them, and Tucson, with the Coyotes farm system as another. According to comments from audience members, Meruelo gained his billionaire status as a gambling mogul from Las Vegas, with an estimated net worth of $14.5 billion.
However, it was noted, debt likely would cut into what financial resources he may have. One audience member noted that, while Coyotes planners have said Tempe residents will pay no taxes for the privately funded entertainment district, it was reported that Tempe will implement a special taxation district to impose taxes on Tempe businesses. Roughly $700 million in Maricopa County taxes would be collected for public funding, it was suggested, and Meruelo would see a nearly 500% larger tax share than the city of Tempe.
Additionally, an 8- and 30-year Government Property Lease Excise Tax worth $495 million would be created, it was said, with the result that Tempe infrastructure would lose, adding stress on police and fire departments as well as public services. Ron Tapscott, a Tempe resident for 22 years, said that Tempe needs development, but “we need reputable business people” doing development. “The history of this gentleman (Meruelo) is very clearly a history of people not responsible for their bills and for their involvement in the community,” Tapscott said. They’re inaccurate about the tax subsidies that are going in the project, Tapscott said. “The GPLET is outstanding — a 30-year GPLET for this project — and they’re siphoning off a number of sales taxes and other taxes that go to residents and infrastructure.”
A point of agreement was that the plot of land being considered needs to be developed, but by someone who cares about Tempe. Tempe 1st officials say the group will continue to host meetings until the vote in May. In the meantime, those interested can learn more about the group’s position by visiting Tempe1st.com.