Holding on to a dream: Winner of Real stadium battle may be billionaire Earl Holding

The deadline came for Real Salt Lake owner David Checketts to tell Major League Soccer whether the new stadium would be in Murray or Salt Lake City.

That day came and went without an answer, after a public meeting on Real’s proposed soccer-specific stadium left Salt Lake City council members at an impasse, and after Murray city officials presented their proposal to Real staff.

Checketts made a phone call to New York to tell MLS commissioner Don Garber that he needs more time to find a suitor. How long is the real question-if you’re a fan of either option. Salt Lake County taxpayers prefer the stadium in Murray, according to several recent public opinion polls. Real would like to use the stadium to help “revitalize” downtown, particularly the southern end.

Both cities presented convincing arguments in their favor. On one hand, one city offered millions in tax incentives and a 100-acre wood on industrial parcels (Murray) while the other offered 10 acres across the way from the Grand America Hotel downtown and well, tax incentives.

One city proposed a stadium adjoining several soccer fields in the Fireclay industrial district of Murray (near I-15 and 4500 South), next to big-box retailers like Lowe’s and Target. Dan Snarr, Murray mayor, has had some good ideas, such as Intermountain Health Care’s flagship medical center in the spot where smokestacks once stood; some bad ideas, like riding his Harley-Davidson through an elementary school filled with kids; and some ugly, which Murray’s stadium is: it is a bland, unimaginative illustration that has been repeated over and over. (See the Dallas, Los Angeles and Denver MLS stadium plans for further review.)

In these particular proposals, all of the stadiums were built (or are being built) in suburbs, the impetus being the youth/retail component: a smattering of green soccer fields on which the kids may ply their cleated dreams, and the parents may later buy cases of two-ply paper towels and silver-plated bathroom fixtures.

What complicates this scenario even more is that Murray has not committed any money to their proposed stadium project. Nobody is denying that Murray can actually get the money to build the stadium. But it seems somewhat sketchy that the money is not coming from a redevelopment agency. Murray said it may tap from other city funds, but those have not been determined. Any announcement is probably months away.

The other city started off its campaign with Salt Lake City mayor Ross “Rocky” Anderson the mouthpiece last month in a cavalcade of TV coverage. His coup d’tat were renderings first shown on KSL-TV in weeks past. The renderings of the proposed downtown stadium were, in a word, impressive.

The words “Grand Real Stadium” were chiseled in minds like a stone monument, as were the granite water fountain and fans in the stadium courtyard. The stadium’s rendering certainly brought to mind the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, home to Real’s supposed sister-team Real Madrid CF.

The other part of this proposal is that the stadium would leave no room for fields of dreams or big-box retailers. Instead the plan looks more like Trolley Square-type storefronts wrapped around a stadium. SLC’s plan banks more on fans commuting on TRAX to the games and spending their wares in the shops and thousands of hotel rooms nearby.

But this site has more to do with a cowboy-hat wearing friend of Checketts than either a motorcycle-riding maverick new to politics or a politically savvy mayor. The buddy is the impetus behind the dream.

If you have ever traveled on Interstate 80 in the barren Wyoming prairie, you may have seen a spectacle, the Little America truck stop/hotel, the only pit stop for miles, owned by billionaire Earl Holding. Holding is the hotel/oil magnate who could, eventually, bring you world-class soccer.

The latest estimate of the land’s worth on the site is about $20 million, up $7.5 million from the first estimates. And that’s just the earth between 600 and 700 South and Main Street and West Temple. Holding currently owns 75 percent of the land on the site. It also just so happens that several businesses currently call the SLC stadium site home. Twenty-five percent of the land is split among the Mark Miller Automotive Group, who leases the land through a Virginia company; Quality Oil Co., who hasn’t made a decision on whether they should sell; Tony Martinez, who owns several Blue Boutiques in the valley and is a “willing seller”; and 7th South Investors LLC. Miller, Quality Oil and 7th South would all have to relocate if land is broken on the proposed SLC site.

In any event, Real has said they would foot half of the bill for the SLC stadium construction, according to Checketts, and the county taxpayers would reportedly foot the other $30 million of the $60 million through a bond proposal in November’s election. If passed, the bond would cover half of the construction costs for the SLC stadium.

A retractable roof, however, could send costs between $90 million and $100 million. The stadium would seat 22,000 spectators, and would be available for concerts year-round.

The main problem is with the city’s purchase of the land. Anderson thinks $20 million for the land is too high. He’d like to see the price somewhere in the $12-15 million range. The other problem is the purchase could tie up almost all the RDA funds from 2008 through 2015, siphoning Gallivan Center operation costs ($800,000 yearly). The Central Business District RDA would then fund Gallivan, leaving $200,000 for improvements to downtown.

Most council members are wary of such a proposal, mainly because it would suck up 80 percent of redevelopment agency funds earmarked for downtown for the next decade or so.

The proposed SLC stadium site would generate $539,000 annually, according to the SLC RDA. The RDA would like to see a Gateway II mixed-use development of housing, offices and retail eventually sprout from the area’s current state of boarded-up buildings, empty lots, and heretofore intact auto dealerships.

Complicating the deal is a bill proposed by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, that would ban the use of RDAs for soccer stadiums. That bill just passed through the Tax and Revenue Committee. Real is worried the bill, SB 184, could “stifle the economic development” the stadium could bring to either city. Holding, meanwhile, knows a deal when he sees one, and that deal is probably being brokered with SLC. It’s likely Real would get Holding’s land through a lease agreement and Holding would get $$$.

Also complicating the deal is that residents are circulating a petition opposing the SLC site. They think it’s too much money and not enough upside.

No matter, folks. Sure, Murray had its chance. Barring a disaster either in the negotiations between the city and county agencies and Real, or Holding and Real, SLC gets the stadium. But negotiations may have taken a turn for the worse last week when Anderson came out in doubt of the current stadium proposal, mainly because of rising costs to build the stadium.

Several other stadium sites are also under consideration, according to Anderson, including several west of the Gateway, and one near Redwood Road. In other words, Murray is, and will always be, the bridesmaid in the Real stadium marriage. Holding is not only the best man, but also the wedding planner. Anderson is the limo driver for the honeymoon between Checketts and Holding, two powerful controlling business interests.

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