The plan unveiled this week for a new Utah Jazz arena and upgrading of downtown convention facilities is enormously ambitious. Yet the plan - or something like it - is clearly needed if the Salt Lake area is going to compete with other cities for lucrative convention business.
But the first and biggest question is also the most difficult - how is a cash-poor state going to find the estimated $146 million price tag for such a project, even if some phases won't be built right away?Some options are explored by DMJM Inc., the Phoenix-based consulting firm that explored the whole Salt Palace-convention facilities-new arena concept for a citizen task force. That panel must make final recommendations on what should be done, but answers won't come easy.
The study was triggered by the need of the Utah Jazz for a bigger arena for its NBA basketball franchise. The 12,400-seat Salt Palace is too small to seat all the fans needed to support an NBA team. Jazz officials had threatened to build their own arena out in the suburbs if they couldn't get bigger facilities near the Salt Palace.
With that threat galvanizing the community into action, DMJM was hired to examine arena possibilities as well as associated convention facilities. The proposals include:
- Construction of a new basketball arena seating 18,500 fans. It also could be used for ice hockey and concerts, much the same way the present Salt Palace is used. The facility would include new parking for 1,500 cars. The price tag is estimated at $76 million.
- Upgrading existing convention facilities, plus construction of a new 300,000 square foot convention center expansion to meet the needs of larger conventions that currently cannot be housed in Salt Lake City. The cost is estimated at $70 million.
Those two projects are considered the most urgent. Other projects that also need to be done include:
- Remodeling of the 20-year-old Salt Palace for other uses, including conventions, festivals, and smaller events, at a cost of $20 million. Certainly, the Salt Palace should not be allowed to become a white elephant in the wake of a new, larger arena.
- A $15 million planetarium and science center.
- Two new performing arts theaters and rehearsal halls at $7 million.
The top priority obviously is the new Jazz arena.
There is no way that state or local government can pick up the cost, or even the majority of the cost, for such an arena. There will have to be Jazz financing, other private money, and some kind of government partnership, although the latter could be controversial and difficult to arrange. No matter how it is sliced, that $75 million is a big pie.
As for the convention facilities, most of that project would have to be financed by government, perhaps using some bonding. But to fail to upgrade the facilities could cost the city, county, and state millions of dollars in convention spending. Already, the old facilities do not meet industry standards and the Salt Lake area is losing conventions and trade shows to its 15 closest competitors.
In addition, both Phoenix and Denver, the major competition in the Mountain West, are both in the process of significantly expanding convention facilities.
If Salt Lake City is to remain a viable convention city, it must make the effort to keep up. Failure to do so would hurt our economy. The price tags for new facilities are high, but there is no way to go "on the cheap" or stay in the economic running without such investment.