SALT LAKE CITY — The tradition of coercing cities into building sports arenas at public expense, under threat of relocation, is tried and true. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance said between 1995 and 2015, 29 of 31 NFL stadiums were constructed or renovated at a cost of nearly $7 billion to taxpayers.
Still, in light of a recently approved $22.7 million tax break to help renovate Vivint Smart Home Arena, I’m not worried. In San Diego they can let the Chargers leave and that would be sad, but they’ll still have the Padres. St. Louis loses the Rams, but it still has the Blues and Cardinals. Seattle loses the Sonics, yet the Seahawks and Mariners remain.
If Utah loses the Jazz, for lack of an updated arena, Salt Lake will return to the college town it was when the team arrived. But because BYU and Utah are no longer in the same conference, even that rivalry doesn’t mean what it did.
College sports still command high interest locally, but Utah-BYU doesn’t come close to the international draw of an NBA team.
So I’m favoring the partially subsidized $125 renovation, because I’m in favor of Salt Lake being different than Albuquerque, Omaha, Louisville and Austin — nice cities, but none with a major pro team.
College basketball is fine in March, but in pro basketball you get to see world-class entertainment all winter, regardless of whether the local team is good. The Jazz might reek like brine shrimp, but other teams will bring Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, LeBron James or Damian Lillard to town.
The tax increment financing is designed to cover 18 percent of the costs. In the next 24 years, the LHM Group will be reimbursed the $22.7 million in taxes, providing the ownership meets certain criteria. Meanwhile, the Jazz say there won’t be a ticket hike tied to the deal.
The plan has the support of the Utah Taxpayers Association, which claims the improvements will stimulate the economy. Numerous studies in other cities have disputed such assertions. But it's hard to argue against the Jazz case if you've been at a downtown restaurant or club on a game night.
There’s an economy, all right, and Utah’s is the fittest in the nation.
As expensive as the renovation sounds — twice the cost of the original building — it’s frugal by today’s standards. Football stadiums can cost a billion dollars. But direct economic benefits aren’t the entire issue, anyway. It’s about putting a face on the city. If there’s anything in Utah that rivals Mormons, in terms of name recognition, it’s the Jazz.
"You've got the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, you've got the lake, and you've got the Utah Jazz," former coach Frank Layden told Deseret News writer Doug Robinson in his book “Driven.” "That's what people know. I travel all around the world, and everywhere I go that's what people talk about when they learn you're from Utah. The Utah Jazz. John Stockton. Karl Malone. The Jazz have been critical to this city. If you don't have that arena and the Jazz, we don't get the Olympics. And we don't get the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Finals.”
The late Larry H. Miller always said he would keep the team in Utah as long as it wasn’t at the expense of jobs in his other business ventures. Though nobody has raised the threat of relocation, that’s never an impossibility. A shortage of events at Vivint could contribute to such a scenario.
An upgraded arena is expected to bring considerably more outside revenue from additional concerts, shows and a return of the NBA All-Star Game.
While I’m generally skeptical of taxpayer funding for extravagant arenas and attracting teams, keeping the Jazz vital is an easy call. The cost is relatively modest, the implications significant. An outdated arena isn’t just an inconvenience, it might even scare off potential free agents.
As a non-playoff team, the Jazz aren’t terribly interesting these days. But they’re far more interesting than an empty lot in the middle of town. Here’s to making sure they stick around for at least another quarter century.
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