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Mike Sadowski, Deseret News KSL-TV choppers
Aerial view of the site for the proposed Salt Lake soccer complex northwest of downtown.

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-plus soccer fields, a professional-quality practice field and indoor training facility, with a neighboring youth soccer academy.

This was the shared vision of Salt Lake City leaders and Real Salt Lake ownership in 2007.

Since then, those plans have changed, or at the very least have stalled, and city officials say they are moving forward with the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex without Real Salt Lake as partner.

But a group of Salt Lake residents who don't want to see the soccer complex built at the site near the Jordan River aren't buying that line. And even if they did, the residents contend city officials selected the property near 1900 West and 2200 North as the site for the sports complex to accommodate Real Salt Lake.

The problem with that, says Jeff Salt of the Jordan River Restoration Network, is that a project using $15.3 million in public money essentially would be subsidizing a private enterprise.

"This is a public facility funded by public money," Salt said. "Why should a private enterprise be benefiting from that?"

Salt and other members of the Jordan River Restoration Network have been sifting through thousands of documents related to the soccer complex, obtained through Government Records Access and Management Act requests.

The group is using the documents as the basis for its four lawsuits against the city and another against the U.S. Army Corps or Engineers in hopes of stopping construction of the soccer complex and forcing the city to build elsewhere.

A Deseret News review of several of the documents found repeated mention of a youth soccer academy being built in conjunction with the soccer complex.

Billed as an elite, world-class athletic and educational facility, the academy was to include on-site housing and training for between 100 and 200 youths from around the world.

The plan in 2007 was for Real Salt Lake to partner with Real Madrid to attract, train and educate young soccer players — from Utah, throughout the West and even around the world — in hopes of grooming them to play for the respective professional clubs.

Early on, city officials and their professional soccer partners envisioned building 23 soccer fields, as many as eight baseball diamonds and a 7,500-seat championship soccer field on 180 acres of open space.

One of those soccer fields was to become the regular practice site for Real Salt Lake. And another three to four fields were to be utilized by the Major League Soccer franchise as part of the youth soccer academy.

In addition, a half-acre at the regional athletic complex was to be set aside for indoor training and locker room facilities for exclusive use by Real Salt Lake.

"We think (the partnership with Real Salt Lake) has been driving this whole resistance to finding alternative sites (for the sports complex)," Salt said.

Salt Lake City and Real Salt Lake officials say that's simply not true.

"The (regional athletic complex) site was decided long before any discussion with Real about its interest in an academy, (and) even before it organized its team in Salt Lake City," said Rick Graham, Salt Lake City's director of public services.

Real Salt Lake spokesman Trey Fitz-Gerald said team officials have not had any recent discussions about locating a soccer academy at or near the sports complex, and such an academy is not in the team's immediate plans.

That said, Real Salt Lake is "very supportive" of the soccer complex being built in Salt Lake City, he said.

"We're fully supportive of anything that helps the growth of the sport at all levels," Fitz-Gerald said.

Even if Real Salt Lake ownership decided it wanted to build either an academy or an indoor training facility, locating it at the city soccer complex wouldn't be a direct free kick.

"There would be challenges because of federal and IRS restrictions on how (the) property can be used for private purposes," Graham said.

Crying foul

In addition to their disapproval of the site, opponents of the sports complex worry that public use of the fields will go away or be greatly reduced if Real Salt Lake gets involved in the project.

During an unusual court hearing earlier this month related to a lawsuit brought by Salt Lake City against all residents and property owners in Utah's capital city, Graham testified under oath that there have been discussions with Real Salt Lake about leasing space at the complex, though the MLS team is being treated "just like any other entity."

"The public that will use this facility will be paying (to do so), whether it's recreation play, league play or tournament play," he said.

Any use of the facility by Real Salt Lake would not replace any of those uses, Graham said.

Ray Wheeler was one of a handful of Salt Lake City residents who chose to represent themselves at the hearing, giving him the right to cross-examine Graham.

Afterward, Wheeler said he thought Graham "was quite evasive" when asked about Real Salt Lake's past and possible future involvement in the project, often answering "I don't remember" or "I don't know."

Wheeler said Graham's answers and comments by other Salt Lake City officials who testified during the hearing lead him to believe they aren't being forthcoming.

"If you don't tell the voters the whole truth, then it's inappropriate to fund a project with taxpayer money," he said.

Kicking off the talks

A Deseret News review of several of the documents obtained by the Jordan River Restoration Network found that plans for a partnership between Salt Lake City and Real Salt Lake began in May 2004, about two months before Major League Soccer awarded an expansion team to Utah.

Even in those earliest discussions, city leaders talked of leveraging the $15.3 million in bond money approved by voters in 2003 for a regional athletic complex into a public/private partnership with the yet-to-be-named MLS expansion team.

Those talks got more specific in 2006 and then appeared to break down in 2007, at least partially because of squabbles between the two sides over what Real Salt Lake would get for its $7.5 million pledge to the project. In the end, the team presented the city with a letter of credit for the full amount with no strings attached.

Minutes from meetings in 2007 also document discussions about Real Salt Lake contributing another $12.5 million to gain more control over the project. The same document, however, notes several problems with that, including that doing so would be a betrayal to voters who expected fields for kids, not a subsidized academy for a professional soccer team.

'Place of dreams'

Recent city documents make no mention of Real Salt Lake in relation to plans for the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex.

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

The as-yet-unfunded second phase of the project would add two more soccer fields and four baseball diamonds. The lack of a funding source for the $21.5 million expansion, however, has people on both sides of the issue skeptical about whether it will happen.

Real Salt Lake co-owner Dave Checketts spoke at a groundbreaking ceremony in early November for the $22.8 million first phase of the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex.

When complete, Checketts said, the complex "will be a place of dreams."

Opponents of the project, including Salt Lake resident Lucy Knorr, paint a much less rosy picture. Knorr keeps horses in a stable near the site of the soccer complex, and she regularly rides in the open space there.

"Fifteen years from now, when (the soccer complex) is losing money, it will become a Walmart," she said, "and we'll have lost a treasure to the city."