The latest road bump in the construction of a soccer stadium is a good example of why public officials should think carefully before jumping at the chance to publicly finance a private venture.
As a bond attorney made clear last week, public bodies cannot bond for something they do not own. The city of Sandy had announced it was going to become the site of a new 25,000-seat stadium, and the Sandy mayor had been quoted as saying a Salt Lake County bond originally intended for a parking structure at the South Towne Exposition Center would instead be used to help buy land for a stadium and build a garage that would be attached to it. That garage could be used by expo patrons, even though it would require them to cross a busy street on foot.
But, as the bond attorney made clear, that kind of a scheme would violate state law. It may also violate federal law governing the use of public bonds. The only remedy would be for the county to gain total ownership of the stadium, which isn't something either the county or the soccer team, Real Salt Lake, seems interested in doing.
This poses a dilemma one that should have been anticipated and worked out before the city, the governor and team officials held a press conference to announce their plans. Officials are quickly backing away from talk of helping to buy land with the bond, but a public parking garage on private property remains a huge legal question.
The parking-garage compromise always was a ruse. To say it would fulfill the purposes of the bond is to stretch credulity and insult taxpayers. Professional soccer will stage about 20 games a year at the stadium. The Exposition Center is in use virtually every weekend, and its current lot is perpetually full. If anything, the fans, not the center's patrons, should be forced to walk across the street.
Utah lawmakers have wisely reduced the ways in which governments can spend money on private stadiums and arenas. They took away the ability to use redevelopment funds, for instance. Not coincidentally, that's the scheme sports executive Peter Wilt is using right now to persuade the people of Milwaukee to build their own 20,000-seat soccer stadium and that city doesn't even have a team yet.
As if following a familiar script, Wilt is talking about how the stadium will be an "economic engine," and of the need to educate people as to its benefits. We have heard much of the same here.
The economic engine part is pure fabrication, as proven by several unbiased studies. As for education, Utah officials obviously could use a bit of that themselves when it comes to the ways in which public bonds can be applied.