Tempe officials go forward with citizen vote over entertainment district, arena for Arizona Coyotes

There are plans to build a new $2.1 billion hockey arena and entertainment district in the City of Tempe, but first, voters will decide if they want it or not.

Renderings released by the Arizona Coyotes in 2021 include proposed restaurants, shops and apartments on a 46-acre tract of land near Rio Salado and Priest Drive, not far from Loop 202.

The Coyotes had been leasing Gila River Arena on an annual basis since the Glendale City Council voted to opt-out of a multimillion-dollar long-term deal in 2016. Glendale announced in August 2021 that it will not renew its agreement with the franchise beyond the 2021-22 season. The Coyotes played their final game at Gila River Arena in late April 2022

Team owner Alex Meruelo has previously said he plans to keep the Coyotes in Arizona. In February 2022, team officials announced they have signed a deal with Arizona State University to play at the school's new multi-purpose arena in Tempe until at least the 2024-2025 NHL season. The deal has been approved by the Arizona Board of Regents.

The Coyotes have played at Gila River Arena since moving from America West Arena, which they shared with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, in Downtown Phoenix in 2003. That venue is now called Footprint Center.

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Renderings of the new Tempe Entertainment District, including a new arena for the Arizona Coyotes. (Arizona Coyotes)

Ongoing Updates

Jan. 5, 2023

The Tempe City Council voted to put the project to voters, by way of a special election on May 16.

Members of the city council made the vote after enough signatures were gathered to put the propositions on the ballot.

Nov. 29, 2022

The Tempe City Council held a public meeting at 6 p.m. to vote on the proposed Tempe Entertainment District going into the hands of voters and the motion was passed 7-0.

Tempe residents will be able to vote on this in May 2023.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in town to discuss the proposal.

"They're prepared to make a long-term commitment to this project and to the community," Bettman said. "I believe they're prepared to sign a 30-year non-relocation agreement and since this is being privately financed, I don't think that's an issue."

As for the public, they also got to weigh in.

At Tuesday's city council meeting, city leaders heard from those hired by the city to perform traffic studies, former Coyotes players, and commissioner Bettman. Dozens took the podium.

Many had the same arguments against the entertainment district that have been made known for months, like where funding is coming from, what traffic problems will result because of this, what this will do to the city of Tempe, public benefits and land use.

The 46-acre development would be home to restaurants, shops and apartments, along with the new hockey arena.

Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez has said from the beginning this would stimulate Tempe's economy claiming it would create about 7,000 jobs with a median salary of $50,000. Some living in Tempe, however, are opposed to what would become a massive construction site during the development phase and would leave parking, traffic and affordable housing problems in its wake.

Phoenix Sky Harbor is also becoming the loudest and largest critic, fighting the proposal that would have developed within 10,000 feet of one of its runways.

The airport says an agreement from the '90s between Phoenix and Tempe bans residential development under its flight paths. The Tempe Mayor himself has said this argument is not valid.

Commissioner Bettman addressed questions about tax breaks for this project. He called this an economic engine and that tax breaks would be discussed with the city as they would be with any other project of this magnitude.

"The team is playing without support in a temporary facility which is quite unusual at a major league level. I also would be remiss if I didn't thank Arizona State University for sharing Mullet Arena on a temporary basis with the Coyotes. Also in that regard, it shows Alex Meruelo's and Coyotes' commitment to Arizona and their passion for, and commitment, to seeing this project go forward," Bettman said.

Nov. 10, 2022

Further discussions over the project took place between members of the Tempe City Council.

The meeting was not about the project's approval. Rather, Tempe City Council members are voting on whether the project will be put to a public vote in May 2023. Ultimately, council members unanimously approved giving voters the final say about the project.

However, the council has to approve the project first.

"Having the public have a say on this was critically important, " said Mayor Corey Woods. "I’ve been on council now for ten and a half years. I’ve never had a project have this much public interest or public attention."

Coyotes officials are still expressing excitement over the project.

"We are excited," said Arizona Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez. "We have remained incredibly confident that this is the right project, the right deal, and we are the right team to get this done. We’d like to stay in Tempe."

The Council is set to have two other meetings on this proposal: Nov. 22 and Nov. 29.

Oct. 6, 2022

Residents in parts of Tempe received a flyer in the mail from the City of Phoenix. The flyer comes with a warning about airplanes flying overhead: it could be part of the new flight path for airplanes coming and going from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

According to the flyer, planes will be flying over the proposed development nearly every minute. The flyer also warns people to take action now.

In response, Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said he is frustrated with how Phoenix and Sky Harbor Airport officials are handling this.

"I just feel like I need to call it out," said Mayor Corey Woods. "I don't feel that this is an appropriate way to engage in an open and honest dialogue."

Read More: Tempe mayor criticizes flyers sent by Phoenix over proposed entertainment district's impact on flights

June 2, 2022

After nearly eight hours, the council voted 5-2 to proceed with negotiations with the Arizona Coyotes on their proposal.

Supporters of the plan, as well as opponents, met with the Tempe City Council to discuss the proposal.

Tempe leaders heard from developers, airport officials, and dozens of other in-person speakers. Hundreds more wrote comments during the meeting.

During the meeting, the team representing the Coyotes presented more details about the project. They say the project, when built, will attract millions to Tempe. It would be the sixth-largest retail project in the country and provide $215 million in tax revenue.

Former Coyotes player Shane Doan says the move could make the team, along with Tempe, a staple NFL franchise.

"I think it's a sport that reveals character and teaches us that it's not about you. It's a huge advantage for the club as a whole, but I also think it gives us an opportunity that professional sports provides to help the community, and help the area," said Doan.

Opponents, however, say the development, as currently planned, would be built 9,800 feet away from a run at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. In previous meetings, airport officials brought up plenty of concerns, including the height of the buildings. Since then, they say the project organizers have agreed to work with them on that.

The issue now, however, is the noise. They say they don’t want the apartments built because they would be in a ‘high impact’ noise area the planes would be flying over, very close to the apartments, and that would go against previous land-use measures preventing residences so close to the airport.

"You can't build people's houses under the very place we promised to fly the airplanes," said J. Cabou, an outside counsel for the City of Phoenix. "They would be very, very unhappy."

The team said the arena would be funded by private investors but would seek city sales tax revenues to help pay for $200 million in additional costs, including infrastructure work.

"I was the mayor when we built Tempe Town Lake, and I think this is the kind of project that really meets the aspiration potential for the Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe," said former Tempe Mayor Neil Guliano.

The Coyotes were the only ones who put in a proposal for the tract of land in question in 2021.

"They seem to understand that the days of taxpayers shoveling out cash so sports teams and billionaires can build arenas are over, and I think that’s a good thing," said Coyotes fan Trey Terry.

"Cautiously optimistic is how I’d put it," said Alexi Rentzis, a longtime Coyotes fan. "If they get the deal, I’m like, great! They’re not leaving."

The vote doesn't mean anything is finalized yet - only that the city can continue negotiations on the project.

May 20, 2022

We received an e-mail from Sky Harbor officials that contains information they say provides context and clarification following the board meeting.

In the e-mail, officials said the Aviation Department's presentation provided responses to previous questions from the Aviation Board, and that the content was based on the most recent information provided by the developer.

"While the [Tempe Entertainment District] developer’s presentation claims that the Aviation Department’s crane analysis was ‘fabricated,’ the Aviation Department’s presentation was actually based on information provided by the developer. No corrections or changes were requested after Phoenix Aviation staff’s analysis was presented at the April 21 Board meeting, which has been publicly available on skyharbor.com since that date," a portion of the e-mail read.

Aviation officials also said the presentation given by developers "provided information not previously shared with the City of Phoenix Aviation Department."

"Sky Harbor officials learned for the first time in the meeting that the developer plans to lower the project’s top construction crane height to 165 feet and has committed to the tallest crane being up no longer than 21 days. The Airport is pleased that the developer has listened to concerns about crane heights from the Airport and the airlines that serve it and is encouraged to see this change to the plan," a portion of the e-mail read.

Aviation officials, however, said the developers "did not accurately address the most important obstacle – the planned residential high rise building which violates an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between Phoenix and Tempe."

"That agreement prohibits residential units from being built in the high noise impacted areas along the Salt River. In exchange, airlines departing to the east follow a flight path that protects other Tempe neighborhoods from excessive noise," read a portion of the e-mail.

The IGA, according to aviation officials, is based on an FAA study that includes measures "specifically created to prevent residential in the noise impacted area where [Tempe Entertainment District] is proposed."

"The developer’s presentation is misleading, as it uses a table from the introduction to the study chapter of the Part 150 Plan. That table is not part of the Plan for land use along the Salt River Corridor," aviation officials wrote. "The foremost experts in Part 150 studies, the Federal Aviation Administration, previously wrote a letter to Tempe that explained their serious concern about this proposed development, clearly stating that residential development on this parcel is incompatible. City of Phoenix Director of Aviation Services Chad Makovsky made this point and more in his closing statement to the Phoenix Aviation Advisory Board."

May 19, 2022

On May 19, 2022, developers presented their project plans to the Aviation Board.

While no decisions were made during the meeting, both sides presented plenty of data about airport operations.

Some take issue with the fact that the district, as planned, would be built within 10,000 feet of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport's center runway. Critics say the construction could cause runway delays, and impact pilots' line of sight. They also brought up noise concerns for residents in the area.

Developers, meanwhile, say they have met with airport technical teams. They also say cranes are lower than 40 feet in height, and that the height of their buildings have been reduced, after concerns were raised in previous meetings.

Some of the board have asked both sides to work collaboratively because the studies had such different results.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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