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As Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. rushed upfield in an attempt to score a soccer stadium for Sandy, he sidestepped negative opinion polls and blew by a shaky financial plan.

In a one-week sprint, Huntsman worked with legislative leaders to secure taxpayer money for the stadium project. While he had to avoid some immediate obstacles, he remained focused on the future.

"Some do the analysis based on the here and now," Huntsman said. "And others are paid to do the analysis on what is good for the state 20 to 30 years from now."

And when Huntsman looks ahead, he sees a successful team playing in a packed stadium surrounded by hotels and restaurants and businesses. He sees a burgeoning tax base and an entertainment hub for soccer-crazy families.

Huntsman's view carried the day on Thursday, when the House passed a bill that would shuttle $35 million in hotel taxes to build a parking structure, improve infrastructure and buy the land the stadium would sit on.

He surrounded himself with team officials and soccer players, with legislative leaders and even a few fans as they all proudly proclaimed that Real Salt Lake would stay.

The stadium celebration came just days after Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon rebuffed public funding for the project, labeling it a "gamble" and an "unsafe investment."

Some key players argue that without Huntsman's efforts, Major League Soccer would have most likely left the state.

"We needed the governor," said Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan. "The weight of his office was what was necessary to make it happen."

Senate President John Valentine said the key moment came when Huntsman called RSL owner Dave Checketts last week to let him know that he would fight for public funding.

But in doing so, Huntsman went against the public opinion, which is not common for the man with an 80 percent approval rating.

Numerous polls found that more than half the people reject the idea of using any tax money on the project, even if that tax money is collected from people spending a night in Salt Lake County hotels.

Advocates on Capitol Hill argue the public has been misled to think the stadium funding would poke a direct hole in their pocketbook. Either way, the $110 million venue could not be built without the taxpayers because Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, RSL's investor, has refused to put up its private cash until the public money is secured.

Huntsman notes that while the public wasn't thrilled about the public dollars spent on the Delta Center and the majority voted against a light-rail system, both projects are considered a success today.

Huntsman said the stadium deal "has been misunderstood by the public."

And the poll that really matters is not the one taken today, but the one conducted a generation from now.

Still, if support for RSL flags, or if the team fails to meet its business projections and leaves, the governor likely won't feel the fallout, says Quin Monson, assistant director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

"When it's time to pay the piper on this, Governor Huntsman may no longer be Governor Huntsman," he said.

Besides, Monson said, "he's got so much room, so what if his approval rating drops 10 points? Politicians should spend some of that capital when they really believe in something. It's a calculated risk."

Huntsman said he is not worried about "political capital" and promised that he didn't cut a deal with legislative leaders to support the stadium.

He also denied that he fought for the stadium for personal reasons. Rumors have swirled around the Capitol that one of his daughters was dating a player.

Huntsman called such talk "hallway gossip," and he said he never negotiates with such things in mind.

"It is either a straight-up deal or it isn't," he said.

Ron Hrebenar, political science chairman at the University of Utah, agrees the governor will be "relatively immune" to any backlash. He also says Huntsman "probably made the right calculation" when saying Utah's image would take a blow by losing the franchise.

But Hrebenar also expects the stadium decision to rank low on the governor's career profile.

"My guess is Huntsman is looking at federal office or a federal-appointed position," he said. "This is a relatively small item along the way."

By contrast, Hrebenar predicts Corroon's stock will rise in the county after his stadium stance, saying, "He'll be viewed as a courageous figure."

Huntsman's greatest fear was that Real would leave the state and reduce the likelihood that other sports-related companies would come here.

"If you lose something like Real, it reverberates through the marketplace," he said. "This is analogous to when Novell left our state."

Actually, Novell never left, but its headquarters moved from Utah County to the Boston area.

Huntsman, like many in the business community, says that move soured the high-tech sector throughout the state.

When Huntsman saw the RSL deal falling apart after Corroon nixed public funding a week ago, he thought: "What would the cost be in lost opportunities?"


* REBECCA WALSH contributed to this story.

* Sandy officials expect to meet with the Governor's Office of Economic Development early next week to begin drafting contracts.

* The City Council will huddle Tuesday to discuss details of agreements with the state and RSL.

* The Planning Commission is scheduled to review - and could approve - the stadium's preliminary site plan Thursday. A final site plan could be up for review as soon as March 15.

After final approval, construction can begin, perhaps in early spring.

* The city intends to review RSL's private financing and the securities the city will have for its investment. And officials will complete a study of the stadium's economic impact. All will be done before asking the City Council to sign off on a final deal.

* The Redevelopment Agency will create a Community Development Area (CDA) around the stadium site. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the CDA before it is finalized.

* Sandy plans to issue a $10 million bond three or four months before construction is completed - in mid-2008 - to pay for infrastructure around the stadium. The bond will be paid off with new property-tax revenue generated within the CDA. Another $5 million bond, completing Sandy's $15 million pledge to RSL, could be issued if the team boosts the stadium's property value by building a broadcast studio and hotel.

- Rosemary Winters