Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton made his pitch for a new publicly funded arena for the Suns and Coyotes yesterday, and he didn’t provide much more specifics than when he leaked it the day before: He will use tax money, but he won’t raise taxes to pay for it, and he’s for it because he thinks it will bring more spending to downtown Phoenix.
“I as mayor will do everything I can to pursue a course that makes a new facility home to the Suns, the (Phoenix) Mercury and the Coyotes,” Stanton said, noting the WNBA franchise as well. “Building two new sports arenas in our region simply doesn’t make fiscal or common sense.”
He’s right there, as far as it goes: One arena is definitely cheaper than two, albeit a lot more expensive than zero. So does building one new sports arena make fiscal or common sense for Phoenix?
Stanton’s funding plan, based on what little he’s revealed about it, would be a bit of a Rube Goldberg scheme, avoiding new taxes by siphoning every last bit of value out of existing ones. Currently, Phoenix levies hotel and car rental taxes and uses the proceeds to pay off a bunch of past construction projects, including the Suns’ existing arena (opened in 1992), a Sheraton hotel, and other buildings. (Note: This is separate from the county hotel and car rental taxes that pay off the Arizona Cardinals stadium and which were partly ruled unconstitutional in 2014.) The current arena will be paid off in 2022, however, and the hotel plus a downtown biotech building are in the process of being sold off, which would free up those tax revenues to be used for something else.
Great, free money, right? Not exactly. First off, the “something else” could be pretty much anything — in the most extreme example, the city could just cancel the hotel and car rental taxes once the existing arena is paid off, and either leave taxes low as an inducement to visitors or levy new ones to fund other needs. And on top of that, selling the Sheraton to get out from under its debt load isn’t without a cost: The buyer is effectively getting the building for free by paying off $300 million in remaining debt, and the city will lose any future profits it would be getting from the hotel. (The Sheraton currently loses money, but that’s partly because any revenue it brings in goes right back out to help pay off its construction debt.)
In short, then, Stanton is saying that the city’s decision in 1990 to build a new arena for the Suns is an open-ended commitment to keep on building new arenas for the Suns into eternity, while selling off any city assets necessary to make that possible. That’s a legitimate political position, I suppose, but you can see why he chose not to frame it that way. Or to put a price tag on it. Because people are cranky enough about it already.