Coyotes’ arena plan in Tempe rejected by voters
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The Arizona Coyotes’ plan to build a new arena in Tempe as part of a $2.1 billion entertainment district was rejected by voters on Tuesday, and the team said its future “will be evaluated by our owners and the National Hockey League” in the coming weeks.
“The NHL is terribly disappointed by the results of the public referenda regarding the Coyotes’ arena project in Tempe,” league commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “We are going to review with the Coyotes what the options might be going forward.”
The Coyotes were seeking to build a 16,000-seat arena and an entertainment district on city-owned land at Rio Salado Parkway and Priest Drive, at the west end of Tempe Town Lake. It’s a 46-acre tract of land located roughly two miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
The total project cost was estimated at $2.1 billion, with at least $1.9 billion privately funded, and would have included two hotels, a 3,500-person theater and up to 1,995 residential units. The project also was expected to include a gambling component. Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo owns the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada, and the Sahara Las Vegas.
One of the team’s rallying cries for the project was “Landfill to Landmark,” as 1.5 million tons of trash would have been removed from the site at an estimated cost of $75 million.
The Coyotes needed voters to approve Propositions 301, 302 and 303 on a special election ballot. Those ballots were mailed to voters on April 19 and were returned through May 9. In-person voting was held through Tuesday for ballots that were lost, spoiled or not received.
Internally, the Coyotes had been optimistic about the vote entering Tuesday. When the initial returns had 56% of voters selecting “no” on the ballot for the three propositions, they acknowledged the voters had rejected the plan.
“We are very disappointed Tempe voters did not approve Propositions 301, 302, and 303,” Coyotes president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said in a statement.
“While we wanted a different outcome, we remain grateful to all those who volunteered their time and talent. What is next for the franchise will be evaluated by our owners and the National Hockey League over the coming weeks.”
The Tempe arena bid had some significant supporters. In November, the Tempe City Council unanimously approved the Coyotes’ arena and entertainment district proposal. Four former Tempe mayors, as well as current Mayor Corey Woods, endorsed the bid. Bettman also threw the league’s support behind it.
“It’s a private-funded project, and the club’s prepared to execute a 30-year, non-relocation agreement. All the things that say this club wants to be here, and frankly, the NHL wants the club to be here,” he said.
Those who opposed the project cited everything from use of public funds to traffic congestion to the desire to develop the land in other ways. There were questions about Meruelo and the bitter split between the Coyotes and Glendale. The city of Phoenix also had pending litigation against the planned residential units in the district, claiming that violated the 1994 Intergovernmental Agreement on Noise Mitigation Flight Procedures.
The Tempe vote is another twist in the Coyotes’ journey in Arizona, where the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996.
There have been several ownership changes, including one infamous bankruptcy in 2009 that led to the NHL owning the team for some time. There were moments when relocation to Hamilton, Ontario; Winnipeg; and Seattle were close to happening.
The team originally played in Phoenix but called Glendale home from 2003 through last season, when the city council did not renew its arena lease. The Coyotes turned their attention to Tempe, which was much closer to where most of the team’s fans lived.
While waiting on approval and construction of a permanent home in Tempe, the Coyotes relocated to Mullett Arena on the campus of Arizona State, sharing it with the Sun Devils’ men’s hockey program. The NHL team committed to play at Mullett Arena for three seasons with an option for a fourth.
Mullett Arena seats around 5,000 fans for hockey, by far the NHL’s smallest capacity. The team invested $19.7 million in add-ons to make the space NHL-ready, including NHL-quality locker rooms and training facilities. The Coyotes had a better home record (21-15-5) than road record (7-25-9) this season.
The rejection of the Tempe arena plan leaves the franchise without any concrete options for a new NHL-sized facility in the state. There has been speculation about the Coyotes potentially relocating if the Tempe project failed, with Houston the most speculated about.
The fourth-largest marketing area in the U.S., Houston has a hockey-ready arena in Toyota Center. The Coyotes already play in the Central Division, home to the Dallas Stars. But Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta controls the facility, meaning any NHL team that plays there would be a tenant rather than reaping the benefits of its own building.
Atlanta, Quebec City and Kansas City also have been mentioned as potential destinations for future NHL teams.
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