SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Fairpark's future has been murky for years, but state lawmakers are starting to clear things up.
The House and Senate voted unanimously Wednesday during a special session of the Utah Legislature to spend $10 million on a new stadium at the Fairpark, meant to give the Days of ’47 Rodeo a permanent home and revitalize the west-side Salt Lake City neighborhood.
The 10,000-seat, open-air arena is estimated to cost $17 million and be completed in summer 2017.
Lawmakers also passed bills to crack down on people caught flying drones over wildfires, and create tax breaks to lure a new Facebook data center to Utah.
A $3 million contribution from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped fuel the proposal to build the stadium at the fairgrounds. Salt Lake County is expected to contribute $2 million, Salt Lake City plans to pitch in $1 million and private donations make up the rest.
“This is a huge deal to my community,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. “This is going to impact us economically, something that we have been working on for years and years."
The new arena is expected make the Fairpark more self-sustaining by drawing additional revenue from larger events such as the World Series of Barrel Racing.
"The people of the west side, they have a vision for this state," Hollins said. "We are its taxpayers, and we would love to see some of the money start coming back to our community. And this is one way of doing that."
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the stadium will be a "breath of fresh air" for Salt Lake's west side after the Legislature chose last year to relocate the Utah State Prison west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
Mayor Jackie Biskupski commended the Legislature for "recognizing the key role" the Fairpark plays not only in Salt Lake City, but the entire state.
"I’m truly grateful to the governor and the Legislature for stepping up to do what is right for the residents of Salt Lake City and the state of Utah," Biskupski said in a prepared statement. "We all benefit when we all rise together. The new amenities coming to the Fairpark will ensure this special space remains a vital link between our state’s urban and rural interests and economies.”
Gov. Gary Herbert said lawmakers recognize they have to address the fairgrounds, which have been deteriorating due to lack of funding and deferred maintenance.
"We either need to invest money into it and fix the buildings and the structures out there — or raze the buildings and subdivide it and sell it off," Herbert said. "That's not what we want to do."
While the funding passed unanimously, it wasn't without some debate.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said he would vote in favor of the bill but pointed out that the Legislature would be funding an arena that would compete with privately owned arenas, even though some lawmakers have criticized the recent $22.7 million tax break for renovations at the Vivint Arena.
"Let's at least admit the hypocrisy," Bramble said.
In 2015, plans for an $18 million minor league soccer stadium fell apart when lawmakers could not reach an agreement on the issue. Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen later announced his intention to build a stadium near the Maverik Center in West Valley City.
Legislators also believe they addressed another pressing need Wednesday with tougher laws on flying drones over wildfires.
Drones have forced crews battling the Saddle Fire in southwestern Utah to ground firefighting aircraft several times since the blaze broke out last month.
The legislation doubles fines and allows judges to order offenders to pay for lost fire retardant and wasted fuel. It also lets authorities "neutralize" drones entering restricted airspace.
"The redneck in me is to shoot the damn thing," said Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. "But there are much more humane ways to do that."
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, questioned whether the new law creates a "gotcha" for people unwittingly flying drones over wildfires. He said people need to be informed about the boundaries before government brings the hammer down.
A similar concern was raised in the House.
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he wasn’t convinced the penalties should be enhanced because drones are being flown over wildfires “out of curiosity.” But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said law enforcement needs the ability to “neutralize” a drone that jeopardizes the safety of firefighters.
Herbert said before the start of the special session that enhanced penalties were needed for what he called inappropriate drone use that’s costing taxpayers millions of dollars “because of some foolish behavior.”
The governor said he hoped the Legislature’s action would “get the word out and have people stop doing dumb things. If not, there will be a penalty."
Legislators also passed a bill that would give tax breaks to data centers looking to build in Utah.
The sales tax exemption is intended to lure Facebook to Utah. The state is competing with New Mexico for a $250 million data center, the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, told the GOP House caucus before the special session vote.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said during the caucus that an attempt to pass a tax break at the end of the 2016 Legislature raised concerns because it was too narrowed and tailored to a single business. Now, the speaker said, the exemption no longer feels like a “Cinderella story” because it modernizes the tax code.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, called it "public assistance" for Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Of the nine bills lawmakers considered Wednesday, only one didn't pass.
After a lengthy discussion, the House rejected a grandparents' rights bill similar to legislation passed during the 2016 Legislature but was vetoed by the governor over concerns it would affect the rights of adoptive parents.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche
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