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Edward Linsmier, Deseret Morning News
Real Madrid fan Jamal Elgavadi of Libya and Real Salt Lake fan Vanessa Williamsen cheer their respective teams.

SANDY — Forget St. Louis, New York or Utah County: Real Salt Lake is here to stay.

International soccer superstar David Beckham joined a handful of local leaders Saturday to turn the first shovel of dirt at the team's future home in Sandy.

"Ladies and gentlemen — this is the place," team owner Dave Checketts told hundreds of Real fans at the stadium's midday groundbreaking.

Although a funding deal is not done yet, Checketts said he took a "leap of faith" that he can come to some sort of an agreement with the county soon.

"There are details that still have to be worked out, but sooner or later you have to make a go or no-go decision," Checketts said. "And today was my deadline, and I took a leap of faith. I put my trust in our leaders that details will be worked out."

The deal came at the last possible minute as Saturday was Checketts' self-imposed deadline to secure public funding for a stadium. If nothing was hammered out by Saturday's exhibition game against Real Madrid, Checketts said he would sell the team. He received up to seven offers from investors across the nation interested in buying the team and moving it to their respective cities.

But fans don't need to worry about a move now, after Checketts accepted the groundwork of a proposal Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon offered Friday.

Under that plan, the county and the city of Sandy would give the team $55 million in public subsidies to build a soccer-specific stadium in Sandy. The county would use $20 million in hotel-room taxes to help build infrastructure at the stadium, with Sandy paying $15 million in redevelopment agency funds. The team would also share with the South Towne Exposition Center a $20 million parking garage that would be built on the west side of State Street.

However, the deal isn't done yet.

Real officials still want to negotiate how they can use those hotel-room-tax dollars. That's been one sticking point throughout talks with Salt Lake County leaders. But Doug Willmore, the county's chief administrative officer, said Corroon won't budge.

"It's the mayor's intention that any Salt Lake County money only go to public land and infrastructure and not for the stadium or the ground under the stadium," Willmore said. "That's been his position from day one, and he's not going to change that now."

That means those tax dollars would go toward public improvements, such as sidewalks and sewer lines.

But Real CEO Dean Howes takes issue with that idea. He said the hotel-tax money should be able to buy land underneath the stadium, since land for sports venues, like the Delta Center and Franklin Covey Field, were purchased with public money.

"It's pretty common," Howes said. "You know what, land is land, and whoever owns it owns it. We are still working on all of that."

Both fans and local leaders alike didn't think the deal would ever happen. Even Checketts said his mind wasn't made up until late Friday, when he shocked his investors with the news the team would build in Sandy.

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, who has been working on funding proposals in his city for over a year, was ecstatic about the news.

"Honestly, the emotions I'm feeling are similar to when my first son was born," Dolan said. "I just want you to know that Dave Checketts is the man."

In an effort to land a deal before Checketts' deadline, Real rallied numerous Republican and Democratic leaders earlier this week. In a surprise move, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson dropped his idea for a stadium at the Utah State Fairpark and lobbied county leaders to support a funding plan for the Sandy site.

"I think Mayor Anderson played an important role," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. "For those of you that follow Utah politics, it's not often that Mayor Rocky Anderson and Speaker Greg Curtis come together and say, 'This is the right thing for this state at this time.' And it's a great thing."

Anderson said he was disappointed the stadium didn't ultimately end up in the capital city, but he said left-over hotel-tax dollars could fund some of his pet projects, like a downtown performing arts center. After spending $20 million for the stadium, the county will have another $45 million to divvy out, according to the county's Willmore.

"I think (Salt Lake City) would be the best place" for a stadium, Anderson said. "But we're going to get a great investment. There's huge benefits to Salt Lake City and huge benefits to the state.

"If these opportunities had been passed by and we said no to this soccer complex, that would have been passing up on millions."

The county has turned down several funding plans in the past four months, but Corroon said what prompted him to give his stamp of approval on the latest deal is the fact the county would receive $27.5 million back in cash and in-kind contributions from Real. That money would come from parking and ticket revenue, youth soccer and a gift of $7.5 million to Salt Lake City from Real to build a soccer complex in the city.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said the state will also capitalize on Real Salt Lake, especially through major events like Saturday's game against Real Madrid.

"You can't put a price tag on the opportunity we'll have today to broadcast our state for travel and tourism purposes to the entire European continent. You can't," Huntsman said. "We don't have a travel and tourism budget large enough to buy that kind of publicity."

Fans, many wearing Real red, blue and gold, cheered throughout the groundbreaking, interrupting Checketts during his speech, saying "We love you!" and "Thank you Uncle Dave!" Fans also took the opportunity to personally thank and take pictures with Checketts, Anderson and Dolan for finding a way to keep the team in Utah.

"I didn't know what was going to happen," said Robb Enger, a member of the Rogue Cavaliers Brigade, a Real fan club. "I knew that Dave was a resourceful guy, but I did not know there would be such a gathering together of all the local leaders at the 12 o'clock hour, as it were, to get this thing done. So I'm surprised and terribly excited.

"This is a dynasty here in Salt Lake."

Fans of both Real clubs also filled the seats at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday night during the game. Many donned Real jerseys and snapped pictures of the international showdown.

After Checketts announced Real Madrid had suggested returning for the opening of the stadium, the crowd went wild.

In addition to 45,511 people in the stands, Real invited more than 70 Utah political leaders to the game. On top of that, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were part of the crowd.

The Madrid game was the first for Sandy's Dolan.

"I'll have to learn the game. I really don't know soccer well," he said Saturday night. But, he added, he knows the economic value of the $180 million stadium at 9400 South and State Street.

Most locals at the game had already heard the news about the groundbreaking in Sandy and were thrilled Real was staying in Utah.

Siblings Sarah Welliver, 20, and Brian Welliver, 17, were excited they will be living close to the new stadium. The Draper residents attend every game together.

"It's awesome, close to home," said Sarah. "I'm glad they finally got a stadium and they're not moving out. Took them long enough!"

Other Utahns were not as enthusiastic.

"We were a little disappointed. We didn't like the Sandy stadium idea. We wanted it downtown," said Shane Lucas, a West Jordan resident. Lucas, a season-ticket holder, attends games with his children and wife. "It seems stadiums don't grow much in suburbs."

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com; astowell@desnews.com