Put the words “pro sports stadium” and “taxes” in the same sentence, and the usual public fervor ensues.
Spending public money to benefit a private (and extremely wealthy) business tends to raise the ire of those who look at things in a narrow focus.
So when Mesa announced Thursday it has a backup plan in place in which the city will — if necessary — fully fund a new $84 million spring training home for the Chicago Cubs … well, you can guess the reaction.
Facing a July 12 deadline to put forth a funding mechanism for the complex, Mesa unveiled its plan to increase hotel taxes from 3 to 5 percent and also sell off parcels of 11,000 acres of land in Pinal County to pay for the facility.
The proposal must be approved by voters in November, and therein lies the rub.
It’s one thing to convince Mesa residents to approve a tax measure that is county-wide and comes from tourism-related industries (car rentals, hotels and the Cactus League games themselves). That was the original plan put forth by Mesa, and it made complete sense. It was a user tax that affected the people and businesses that benefit most from spring training, while also generating money that could be used for spring training facilities elsewhere in Maricopa County.
But to use city resources that could be earmarked for other services in Mesa? That’s going to be a much tougher sell.
Mesa officials stress that this is a backup plan at this point, and will only be used as a last resort. It still hopes the Arizona Legislature will enact some kind of funding mechanism next year to create money for Cactus League facilities — something it failed to address in this year’s session after Major League Baseball and other Cactus League teams balked at the idea of creating a ticket surcharge.
But Mesa voters don’t get to wait until next year before casting their ballot. If it comes down to it, do they want Mesa to foot the entire bill for the $84 million facility?
The Cubs are on the hook for some of the costs. They must purchase the land, valued at about $5 million, and donate it to the city. The Cubs also would cover any costs beyond the $84 million and would assume annual operating expenses for the facility (which currently fall on the city). The team and private developers would fund a surrounding development, dubbed Wrigleyville West, that would include Chicago-themed restaurants, bars, shops and hotels.
That is where the real value in Mesa’s investment kicks in. Those year-round businesses would likely attract the glut of Chicago transplants living in the Valley and be a boon to city sales-tax coffers.
The Cubs — by far the most popular team in the Cactus League — provide an estimated $138 million annual economic impact to the state. Presently, much of that goes to Mesa’s surrounding cities because there is little around Hohokam Stadium other than homes and a cemetary.
It’s easy to say that money from the land sale would be better used to increase public safety or restore services in Mesa that have been cut. But those entities don’t generate $138 million a year. Wealthy investors in Florida are lining up to woo the Cubs and get a piece of that pie.
Mesa’s costs would be about $6 million a year for 30 years to cover principal and interest for the $84 million facility. About $1 million of that would come from the hotel tax increase, with the rest coming from the land sale.
Even if you dispute the $138 million total the Cubs generate annually, the math (and logic) seems simple: Mesa needs the Cubs a lot more than the Cubs need Mesa.