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$7.5M Real deal still in place for athletic complex despite delays

Published: Thursday, Dec. 16 2010 6:10 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A $7.5 million gift from Real Salt Lake has been sitting under the tree since 2007, and city leaders expect it to be there in 2011.

A pending lawsuit prevented the Salt Lake City Council from authorizing the sale of $15.3 million in voter-approved bonds for a regional sports complex this week in its final meeting of 2010. City leaders had hoped to get the deal done before the end of the year, when the letter of credit from Real Salt Lake is set to expire.

A lawsuit filed against Salt Lake City and the City Council last month by the Jordan River Restoration Network likely will prevent the council from issuing the bonds until at least February. City attorneys say the legal challenge is "without merit" and have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Oral arguments in that matter are scheduled for Jan. 31.

Lisa Harrison Smith, spokeswoman for Mayor Ralph Becker's office, said failure to issue the bonds before Dec. 31 prevents the city from cashing Real Salt Lake's letter of credit. However, city officials believe the Major League Soccer franchise "will still honor the gift agreement and donate the $7.5 million to the city when the bonds are issued for the (regional athletic complex.)"

Trey Fitz-Gerald, Real Salt Lake's director of public affairs, said the organization isn't looking to back out of the agreement made by team owner Dave Checketts in 2007.

"As long as the project is moving forward, we are committed to that pledge," Fitz-Gerald said.

In its lawsuit against the city, the Jordan River Restoration Network alleges that the project approved by voters in 2003 is "significantly and materially different" from that for which the city now intends to use the bond.

The nonprofit environmental advocacy group also alleges that the city failed to properly provide notice of public meetings and actions related to the bond.

Last week, city attorneys said the lawsuit wouldn't prevent the city from moving forward with issuing the bonds before the end of the year. The Jordan River Restoration Network views the city's change of position as a validation of its complaint.

"What it does is it illustrates that our efforts to be watchdogs and to promote good government is spot on," said Jeff Salt of the Jordan River Restoration Network. "This is what our task is, to ensure that the public's business is being conducted properly."

City leaders held a ground breaking ceremony in early November for the $22.8 million first phase of the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex near 1900 West and 2200 North.

Checketts took part in the ground breaking ceremony and spoke at the event, saying the soccer complex will give "our youth a place for their dreams to play out."

"We're obviously supportive of the project," Fitz-Gerald said.

City officials plan to use the $15.3 million bond and the $7.5 million gift from Real Salt Lake to fund construction of 15 competition-quality soccer fields and one championship field with bleachers and lights.

A voter information pamphlet from 2003 bills the project as a sports, recreation and education complex "to accommodate the growing needs of youths and adults participating in organized sports such as soccer, rugby, lacrosse, football and baseball." The pamphlet features a picture of kids playing baseball.

Baseball fields have been removed from the first phase of the project, though two are included in the as-yet-unfunded $21.5 million second phase. Some of the fields in Phase 1, however, will be designed to accommodate rugby and lacrosse.

Environmental groups also have objected to the selected site's proximity to the Jordan River. The City Council has committed to fully fund a riparian restoration plan along the Jordan River near the sports complex. That work could end up costing as much as $1 million.

e-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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