By including $15 million in his 1992 budget for the state's share of renovating and expanding the Salt Palace, Gov. Bangerter this week put the fate of the vital convention facility squarely in the lap of the Salt Lake County Commission - where it faces an uncertain future.
That same $15 million was in the budget before last January's legislative session - to be taken as a one-time expenditure from the budget surplus. But the Legislature, crowded by an education crisis, adjourned without appropriating the funds.As it turns out, that yearlong delay opened the door to circumstances that may jeopardize the badly needed $62 million Salt Palace project, or at least shrink it.
In last month's elections, Democrats Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley won seats on the three-member commission, taking control of the formerly all-Republican body. In early comments, the commissioners-elect said the county should re-examine the Salt Palace project.
The original plan called for the state, county and Salt Lake City to each come up with $15 million for the expansion and the final $15 million from unspecified other sources.
Bangerter has the state's share in his proposed budget and the city has pledged its portion, with $9 million to come from Redevelopment Agency funds. That leaves the county.
Clearly, the project cannot proceed without county participation. And any change in the financing formula would affect the other participants.
The need for an expanded facility has been well-documented. The 21-year-old Salt Palace cannot compete with other cities for major conventions and has lost or is in danger of losing millions of dollars in convention business as a result.
Horiuchi and Bradley acknowledge the need to renovate the Salt Palace. The major sticking point seems to be proposals to tear down the 12,000-seat Acord Arena.
The two commissioners-elect want to keep the arena intact, at least for the time being, hope to have plans by mid-January for remodeling the rest of the facility, and expect this to cost less than the the $62 million their predecessors were willing to pay.
But more agonizing over the Salt Palace risks more delay, and more delay will only hurt convention business. With the Utah Jazz basketball team and the Golden Eagles hockey team moving out of the Salt Palace into Larry Miller's new nearby arena in 1991, the Salt Palace area has no steady source of income.
It could cost more to earthquake-proof the arena than to tear it down. Besides, that space is needed to attract conventions. Broad-based community studies already have shown that the only feasible alternative is to tear down the arena and use the site for the additional 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and meeting rooms required for a competitive Salt Palace.
It would be unrealistic to expect the new county leaders to merely rubber-stamp the decisions of their predecessors. But some quick decisions are essential. Every delay means more lost convention business. Let's move expeditiously in the new year to secure funding so the project can get started.