Will they stay or will they go? What’s on the line with Coyotes arena referendum

A rendering of the proposed complex in Tempe, Ariz., that would include the Coyotes arena. (Courtesy photo)

The Arizona Coyotes face a potential turning point in their tumultuous history when the votes for a proposed new arena complex are counted Tuesday by Tempe city council.

Simply put, if enough “yes” votes come in, then Bluebird Development — a team-affiliated group — will start developing the land in Tempe, promising the Coyotes something they’ve never had since relocating to Arizona: their own arena.

And if the proposals don’t pass? Well …

As with all things concerning this franchise, the answer is not simple.

Here’s what to expect.

Proposed timeline from the official Tempe Entertainment District plan.

What’s being proposed?

Propositions 301, 302 and 303 are essentially city council seeking approval from the public to go ahead with a $2.1 billion Tempe Entertainment District plan that would result in a development of 46 acres/19 hectares featuring a 16,000-seat arena, 1,900 luxury residential units, a 3,000-seat music venue, high-end retail, upscale restaurants and fancy hotels.

Specifically: Proposition 301 amends the city’s general plan for use of the property; Proposition 302 enables the rezoning of the property; and Proposition 303 gives the Coyotes the right to develop the site.

The land is currently mostly a landfill beside the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport that caught fire last year.

Who’s doing the voting?

Citizens! This is an actual vote done by actual people, a special referendum called solely for this particular project. Council approved the proposal, 7-0, in November and took it to the people, in a tremendous sign of support for democracy.

The voter response has reportedly been off the charts. Last week, PHNX’s Craig Morgan reported turnout was as high as 31 per cent of the 89,575 eligible voters and climbing, which is bananas for this kind of special hyper-local government election. And that was counting only the mail-in ballots; drop-off ballots have yet to be counted.

What’s the vibe? How do you think the citizens will vote?

The Tempe Wins campaign has been pushing this project since its inception, and appears to have the upper hand. It has an aggressive and organized social media approach, a catchy slogan (“From Landfill to Landmark!”), some spiffy renderings with oddly skating animated players and the backing of people who are a big deal in the area. And we don’t just mean Shane Doan.

Also supporting the project are notable former mayors, former council members and prominent business people, some of whom engaged in the door-to-door campaign to foster support. That’s right, Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo and GM Bill Armstrong went knocking on Tempe doors, “looking for your vote.” Can’t imagine Steve Yzerman doing that in Detroit, but there you go.

Those supporting the project say it will bring 6,900 permanent jobs and a tax benefit of $215 billion to Tempe over 30 years. Developers are also touting that all funding will be private, with “no risk to the taxpayers or the city.”

Golly, everything is so polarized these days. Surely there is opposition.

Of course there is.

The proximity to the airport has raised some flags, to the point where the City of Phoenix sued to prevent the development because the housing portion was too close to runways and flight paths, violating a previous agreement. Basically, Phoenix is reminding people that airplanes make a lot of noise and they don’t make good neighbours. Critics saw the suit as being a petty bit of business by a city that wanted a monopoly on such developments, and the Coyotes filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, for $2.3 billion – an amount that is, oddly, very close to the projected cost of the development. The two sides seem to have respectively cooled off about those legal maneuvers, but nonetheless they are still out there.

The “no” side is also very suspicious about the guarantee that no public funding will be required, latching on to the seemingly subjective “no risk to the taxpayers or the city” part of the deal, which is reasonable, considering one party’s risk is another party’s sure thing.

More specifically, the agreement calls for property tax “relief” for a whopping 30 years, which reportedly amounts to $700 million. Then there’s the $200 million in infrastructure costs, such as sewers, roads, etc., that the city will be bearing. The widening of the wealth gap also drew criticism, as some of the condos reportedly potentially have million-dollar price tags.

Plus, there is a real concern about the sportsbook that would be attached to the facility, especially given the relative proximity to the susceptible youth of Arizona State University.

Lastly, increased traffic is another criticism that seemingly has juice. Who wants more traffic around the airport?

How does the proposed arena compare to what the Coyotes have played in before?

Wow, I don’t think we’ve got that much time.

When the Coyotes moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season, they played in America West Arena, which was built for the NBA Suns. Thus, it was too small for an NHL-size rink, so part of the upper deck actually hung over the boards and ice, obscuring one-third of the ice – including the net – from portions of the stands. The resulting capacity reduction meant the Coyotes could seat around 16,000 for their games, up slightly from the 15,400 that was deemed to be too small in the aging Winnipeg Arena.

Thus, the Coyotes have been, almost from the beginning of their time in Arizona, searching for appropriate digs. A proposal to build an arena on the former Los Arcos Mall site in Scottsdale was approved by council and voters but met with hostility by influential locals.

So, scampering away from America West in Phoenix more than two months into the 2003-04 season, the Coyotes landed a lease in Glendale at what would become Gila River Arena. The team stayed there for 13 years through ownership changes, bankruptcy, the NHL taking over operation, a lockout, countless failed ownership bids (remember that awkward dance with BlackBerry exec Jim Balsillie?), a threatened relocation to Seattle-Hamilton-Winnipeg-Quebec City-Portland-Kansas City-Las Vegas-Houston, four years of being coached by Wayne Gretzky, a division change, seven years of being on an annual lease and, lastly, being accused by the city of missing tax payments before having its lease terminated effective the end of the 2021-22 season after news leaked the Coyotes were looking for a sweeter arena deal in Tempe.

Kicked out of their home and desperately scanning the desert for an arena, the Coyotes struck a deal to play in Arizona State University’s Mullett Arena, which was still under construction, starting a month into the 2022-23 season. This was a complex, it should be said, that was originally part of a proposal the Coyotes put forth in 2017 and featured a new NHL rink and an adjacent practice rink that ASU would play its games on; but ASU pulled out of the deal.

As we sit today, the Coyotes are now playing on that very same proposed practice rink to a capacity of 4,600. And because NCAA rules prohibit the sharing of college and pro facilities, to begin the season NHL teams had to get dressed in makeshift dressing rooms that involved a lot of cinderblocks and black curtaining and probably skate guards. (They now have dedicated dressing rooms in the attached “annex.” H/t to Mike Gould at Daily Faceoff.)

What is really on the line here? What are the possible outcomes of the vote?

Good questions. If the citizenry overwhelmingly approves the proposal, theoretically the arena plan goes ahead and the Coyotes are playing in their college rink with slapdash facilities for another three seasons. (Maybe four.)

If the proposal is voted down, then … sadness? One would assume acrimony and litigation, however, are more realistic next moves.

(Worth noting here, of course, is that if the “yes” side wins, there is still going to be the ongoing litigation with Phoenix.)

But you’ve got to think a “no” victory would legitimately jeopardize the future of the Coyotes in Arizona. If they won’t let you build an arena on a landfill near the airport …

Seriously, would the Coyotes really move?

Listen, anything is possible with this team and with this league. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seems to be bound and determined to keep the team in the No. 11 market in the United States, even considering all that has happened with this franchise since it moved from Winnipeg.

But you know the owners and players can’t be happy propping up the perpetually rebuilding Coyotes playing in an arena with a capacity of 4,600 for at least three more seasons. Revenue sharing and escrow are real things and rely a lot on gate receipts, the latter of which the Coyotes can’t be contributing a great deal, not only given their current digs but also seeing as they have made the playoffs just once in the past 11 years and been past the first round just once in their 26 seasons in the state.

I’m on the edge of my seat with anticipation! When will we know the results?

Voting could be announced as early as 8 p.m. MT / 11 p.m. ET on Tuesday. (Arizona does not observe daylight saving time.)

Never a dull day in the desert.

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