Tempe residents will soon make the final call on an arena for the Arizona Coyotes and a proposed entertainment district. Three propositions that address land use and enter the city into an agreement with a development company will be on a special mail-in ballot mailed to residents starting Wednesday.
The proposed entertainment district would include nearly 2,000 apartments and a new hockey arena for the Coyotes with 16,000 seats on more than 46 acres with other businesses and retail locations.
Since Tempe City Council sent the propositions to voters, two political action committees have stared each other down, hosting opposing news conferences about the potential economic impact of the district and how the policy was made in the first place. There have been lawsuits, and a debate between the two PACs lies ahead.
Ballots will be mailed to residents on April 19 and must be mailed back by May 9. Replacement ballots may be cast in person from May 8 through 16 if the mailed ballot was lost, spoiled, destroyed or not received.
Tempe City Council puts propositions on ballot
The project was approved by the council to become a referendum on Nov. 10, 2022, and on Nov. 29, the proposed use of land and development that would be the entertainment district was unanimously approved.
Proposition 301 amends the city's General Plan 2040, facilitating the redevelopment of city-owned but commercially zoned property into a mixed-use project that would include all of the entertainment district.
Proposition 302 rezones the land on the northeast corner of Priest Drive and Rio Salado Parkway, and Proposition 303 authorizes the sale of the land to Bluebird Development LLC, run by Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo.
While the majority of the funding for the project will come from Bluebird Development LLC, the project will receive a 30-year Government Property Lease Excise Tax, which allows developers to build in Arizona by paying an excise tax instead of property taxes for a set number of years. This kind of tax has been used in projects around the state, like CityScape in downtown Phoenix and Tempe Marketplace.
In the Nov. 29 meeting, Tempe Mayor Corey Woods called the project the "best sports arena deal in Arizona history."
"I think the benefits of this being built privately is that the owner is the one who's actually responsible for the maintenance, the upkeep and the repairs and not the city of Tempe and not our taxpayers," Woods said.
Political action committees form
Soon after the City Council approval, two political action committees formed: Tempe Wins, sponsored by Bluebird; and Tempe 1st, a campaign paid for by the Democracy for Tempe PAC. Tempe Wins is in favor of the entertainment district while Tempe 1st is opposed.
Tempe Wins formed on Nov. 29. Notable figures involved in the campaign are former Tempe mayors Neil Giuliano, Hugh Hallman and Mark Mitchell. Joining them is former Coyotes player Shane Doan and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who spoke at recent events.
"I can't imagine why anybody would think this is a bad idea," Bettman said at a news conference on April 13 for Tempe Wins. "It's a win-win for everybody."
Some ASU students and members of labor unions including Carpenters Union, Arizona Local 1912, support Tempe Wins, too.
Through a robust social media campaign, Tempe Wins has targeted "misinformation" about the district's funding and has gone on the attack against Tempe 1st leader, former Tempe city councilwoman Lauren Kuby.
Tempe 1st, the grassroots campaign that opposes the propositions, is also led by community advocate Dawn Penich-Thacker, some ASU students, social justice activists and local business owners.
"They must see me as a threat," Kuby said Monday. "I think they know that Tempe residents look upon my service as one that is very thoughtful and critical. And you know, in the best sense, I delve deeply into the issues that I research, I do my research and do my work."
Tempe Wins often references Kuby's voting record on stadiums during her tenure on City Council from 2014 to 2022 as being contradictory to her leadership on Tempe 1st. She voted for renovations to Tempe Diablo Stadium, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim play spring ball, and voted to approve a similar tax-abated project in 2022, South Pier, with the stipulation that she would hear additional presentations about that specific project.
The city of Phoenix, which operates Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, sued Tempe over the residential portion of the entertainment district. Filed March 28 in the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County, the lawsuit claims Tempe broke a contract when its City Council sent the propositions to voters.
In a statement, the airport said it is "asking the court to rescind Tempe's recent zoning and land use changes and prohibit future residential uses in an area that the Federal Aviation Administration says is incompatible with residential development."
Phoenix cited a 1994 agreement between both cities in which they established zones around a specific noise contour determined by the FAA where residential units could not be built. The agreement is meant to protect communities from noise and the airport from litigation. The Tempe entertainment district would be located entirely within these contours on Priest Drive and Rio Salado Parkway on the west side of Tempe, the lawsuit said.
In response to Phoenix's lawsuit, Bluebird Development countered with a $2.3 billion claim on April 5, asking for the price of the entertainment district development project and claiming "Phoenix is knowingly and intentionally interfering with its business."
In the filing, the Coyotes' lawyers claimed the Phoenix lawsuit was filed at the wrong time because the entertainment district is already being added to the ballot.
"Either way, the lawsuit should be dismissed to the extent it seeks to undo the project currently subject to referendum," the lawsuit filed by Bluebird says.
In response to the lawsuit, Tempe Wins held a news conference at Four Peaks Brewing Company Wilson Tasting Room where former Tempe mayors Harry Mitchell, Giuliano, Hallman and Mark Mitchell endorsed the proposal.
Hallman, an attorney who has served on the Tempe Aviation Commission, said the lawsuit was just another example of Sky Harbor trying to impede Tempe's growth.
He said claims that Tempe is not allowed to build residential housing within the FAA-established noise contour boundary agreed upon by Tempe, Phoenix and the airport in the 1990s were an "abject lie." He called the lawsuit a "complete fabrication," and "a political document, not a legal one."
"If Sky Harbor had its way, downtown Tempe wouldn't exist the way Mayor (Harry) Mitchell envisioned. Town Lake wouldn't exist … Extortion and bullying should be stopped," Hallman said.
On April 13, the same day the Coyotes played their last home game of the season at ASU's Mullett Arena, Tempe Wins held a second news conference. The conference was planned to be held in the parking lot of Goodwill on Elliot Road and Priest Drive in Tempe, but was relocated to the Tempe Chamber of Commerce after "Vote No" was drawn with chalk and paint across the parking lot.
Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona CEO Tim O'Neal, who spoke at the press conference, said the graffiti was "easily removed."
NHL Commissioner Bettman, making his second appearance in Tempe in support of the development, solidified the league's commitment to hockey in the desert.
"Nobody over the last two and a half decades could doubt the NHL's commitment to Arizona," Bettman said. "Why? Because we believe this is a place where hockey should be."
Bettman said that, from the league's perspective, it "would have been easy to say we're leaving" Arizona through the team's difficult history in the state. Meruelo and the league are both committed to Tempe long-term.
"Once this project is built, this team is never going anywhere. It's going to be here forever."
Edited by Jasmine Kabiri, Reagan Priest and Greta Forslund.
Piper Hansen is the digital editor-in-chief at The State Press, overseeing all digital content. Joining SP in Spring 2020, she has covered student government, housing and COVID-19. She has previously written about state politics for The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Capitol Times and covers social justice for Cronkite News.
Shane Brennan is the Editor-in-Chief at The State Press. He was a sports and politics reporter, before becoming the editor of the politics desk. He has covered local and state politics for the Arizona Capitol Times and Cronkite News.