The proposed Mesa Plays sports complex

The proposed Mesa Plays sports complex would have numerous soccer and basket ball courts that city officials hope will lure out-of-town tournaments and fans.

Mesa is hoping taxpayers kick the Mesa Plays sports complex across the goal line after a shift in financing placed the tax burden on out-of-town patrons for the much awaited, much debated $55 million facility.

City officials last week acknowledged they are taking a risk that financial forecasts are correct and that Mesa Plays, with 24 fields, will become a magnet for large tournaments.

The financing shift, orchestrated by City Manager Chris Brady, leaves Mesa taxpayers responsible for paying off the $25 million cost of nine artificial turf fields reserved for community use, even though they also could be incorporated into a large tournament.

But $30 million in excise bonds would be issued to pay for 15 fields reserved for tournaments. Sales tax revenues would be pledged in support of the bonds, but the biggest source of funds is a 1 percent increase in bed taxes paid by hotel and motel guests.

Although excise bonds do not need approval from voters, advocates must convince voters to support two related ballot questions – the bed tax increase and spending more than $1.5 million on a city project.

“The community is going to have to endorse Mesa Plays. It’s thumbs up or thumbs down on both of these questions,’’ Brady said.

Mesa Plays looks like the ultimate soccer facility that would draw lots of children and soccer moms. It also has been billed as a major economic development catalyst in northeast Mesa.

“The folks who are coming from out of town are paying for this. That seems a lot cleaner to me,’’ Mayor John Giles said, vowing to campaign for voters to approve the related Mesa Plays ballot questions, and also the general obligation bond packages which amount to a municipal goodie bag of improvements.

With the bed tax income, sales tax income and field reservation fees, “we’re breaking even, building a signature parks project,’’ he said.

Brady said he was always uncomfortable with including the tournament fields of Mesa Plays into the general obligation bond package, because the fields are not for community use.

“It didn’t feel right,’’ he said.

Council supportive

Council members seemed largely supportive of Mesa Plays and the bond package.

Giles, Vice Mayor David Luna, council member Mark Freeman and council member Chris Glover all praised it. The council took no formal vote because the discussion was at a study session, where the focus is on reaching an informal consensus.

“It’s a huge economic asset for the community,’’ Luna said during an earlier interview. “What I appreciate is that there will 10 fields for the community.’’

The project would be in Luna’s District 5, adjacent to Red Mountain Park off Brown Road and 80th Street.

“They would be able to play at a single location’’ for tournaments, rather than at fields scattered throughout the city or region, Luna said. “We are hoping it will be a catalyst for economic development,’’ including more hotels in northeast Mesa.

Freeman praised the proposal after hearing about the new financing plan.

“I was initially taken aback by the cost,’’ Freeman said. “I am supportive of it. I think it’s a great opportunity for Mesa.’’

Whether enough visitors would come from out of town to foot the bed tax bill has been much debated, with supporters citing an Elliott D. Pollack & Co. study that projects $365 million in total economic output generated by the complex – including $183 million in direct expenditures.

Anthony Evans, senior research fellow at the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University, sounded a note of caution, saying that the economic impact depends upon the ability to attract out-of-state tournaments to the facility.

While parents and children from Colorado or New Mexico might stay in Mesa during such tournaments, those coming from somewhere else in metro Phoenix would not.

“If most (visitors) are from the Metro Phoenix area, it is not going to add a lot to the local economy,” he said.

Brady said that either way, Visit Mesa, the city’s tourism arm, has pledged $1.4 million in bed tax revenues per year towards the $2.4 million a year debt service on the tournament fields.

“They are greatly motivated to make sure tournaments are coming in,’’ he said, noting that the city regularly collects bed tax revenues from Cactus League fans and other visitors. 

$30 million cut

Marc Garcia, president and CEO of Visit Mesa, said hotel developers have already written to Giles, promising to build new hotels if the complex gets built.

“I’m pretty confident. I would not agree to this if I didn’t think it was achievable,’’ Garcia said. “This is the right project for the right city at the right time.’’

Garcia said Visit Mesa has the connections to book large tournaments, adding, “What we’ve been lacking is the large field space.’’

Special to the Tribune -An artist’s rendering of the Mesa Play’s sports complex. Early plans for the project included a110,000-square-foot field house, though that amenity has been removed from current plans.

A secondary benefit from the split financing arrangement is that city officials were able to shave a cool $30 million off the general obligation bond ballot measure that would go before voters in November, perhaps making it more palatable.

That’s not to say they are not hoping taxpayers are generous this year. The parks and cultural outlay would be $111 million, a cost of $24 in secondary property tax to the average homeowner.

The public safety portion of the bond package is $85 million, which includes two fire stations in southeast and northeast Mesa, a police station in northeast Mesa, new fire trucks and a new police evidence facility. The cost to the average homeowner is $19. 

The City Council is scheduled on July 2 to formally vote to place the $196 million bond issue on the November ballot, with separate questions for the parks and public safety improvements.

Giles said he supports all of the ballot questions but is still interested in receiving feedback from voters.

The bond issue contains goodies for everybody, but it focuses especially on building out many quality-of-life and public safety facilities in East Mesa.

Soccer fields and baseball fields galore are included, along with a library paired with a new high school in southeast Mesa; a fire station in southeast Mesa; a combined police and fire station in northeast Mesa; bicycling and walking trails in central and east Mesa; renovations at the I.D.E.A Museum in central Mesa; even dog parks in east and west Mesa.

No wonder Giles questioned how voters might respond to the cost of this municipal goodie bag, especially with the council already putting Question Two on the ballot – a .25 percent sales tax increase for public safety personnel costs.

The council directed city staff to whittle down the original, $225 million version to $200 million. Mesa has no primary property tax, but the city collects a secondary property tax to pay off bonds.

If voters approve the bond package, the council would start discussing in January 2019 a four-to-six-year build-out schedule for the projects.

“That is a very imposing potential ballot,’’ Giles said.

City Engineer Beth Huning said the city is constantly getting requests for athletic fields and some people are making due even without a formal facility being available.

One smaller project, at the Crismon and Elliot Road retention basin, would add two lighted soccer fields and parking for $2.5 million, eliminating the problem of people parking along Elliot and using the unimproved fields anyway.

She said another project, on Center Street north of the Loop 202, would cost $14.2 million for the construction of six lighted soccer fields.

This new facility would replace the fields lost behind Mesa Riverview Park because of construction of Union, a large cluster of office buildings that will feature 1.35 million square feet of high quality space.

Union, billed as “capable of bringing thousands of quality jobs and opportunities to Mesa,” fulfills the promise originally envisioned by Mesa for a strategically located site at Dobson Road and the Loop 202 that is now home to Sloan Park, the perennially sold out spring home of the Chicago Cubs.

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