Soccer stadium: RSL boss says deal is 90% complete

Checketts counters Curtis' 'soccer's dead' opinion; County Council votes to rush fiscal review
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Brimming with confidence that final approval is not far off, Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts insisted Tuesday that a Sandy soccer-stadium deal is ''90 percent'' done.

But notching that last 10 percent could prove tricky.

Checketts and his executive team huddled with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board to pitch the benefits of a $110 million suburban stadium - juggled, and twice dropped, by politicians during the past year.

RSL's owner was forced to play defense after House Speaker Greg Curtis declared the day before that he is drafting a bill that would divert millions in hotel taxes away from the stadium proposal toward either TRAX or Hogle Zoo, a move that could torpedo the deal.

''I knew he was reaching a level of frustration,'' said Checketts, adding that he had not talked to the powerful Sandy Republican since before the holidays. ''That's really a battle between [Salt Lake County leaders and state lawmakers]. I hope cooler heads prevail.''

Curtis is balking over a potential 30-day financial review by the county's Debt Review Committee (DRC). He worries that such foot-dragging would push any decision about how to reallocate hotel taxes perilously close to the end of the legislative session, which starts Monday.

To address the problem, the County Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to rush a recommendation from the DRC, which is poised to review the stadium proposal.

''There is no question, at this point in time, that any delay - whether it's Salt Lake County or Sandy or Real - that occurs will embolden the statement that soccer is dead, and it will become reality,'' Councilman Joe Hatch said. ''If we don't do this quickly, it's over. We have to make that decision by mid-February, period.''

The DRC had said it needed a month, but the council urged the panel to make the evaluation in a week.

Los Angeles-based Economics Research Associates is expected to deliver a preliminary review of the viability of RSL's business plan to county officials today. The DRC then will determine whether it's in the county's long-term financial interest to issue $30 million in old and new hotel taxes toward the stadium project.

But the one-week timetable is not realistic, counters county Treasurer Larry Richardson, slated to take over as DRC chairman next week.

"It sounds overly optimistic at best," he said.

An average review takes at least a month, says Richardson, noting members spent two years vetting a bonding plan for a proposed aquarium.

"I heard that one member of the mayor's staff had more than 80 questions [about the stadium plan]," Richardson added. "And each member will have their own."

Doug Willmore, the county's chief administrative officer and a DRC member, concurred that a one-week review is impossible.

"Shortening the process is not something [county Mayor Peter] Corroon is going to back and support."

Instead, Willmore warned, rushing it may ensure some DRC members simply vote no.

Checketts conceded that some portions of his plan could be criticized by number-crunchers - he expects the county to put "a tremendous amount of weight" on the consultant's report - particularly projections that call for up to 20 concerts a season with an average attendance of 17,500.

"I've heard people say, 'This is a skinny model. We're counting dead bodies. . . .' It's an aggressive model, but this is what I do for a living."

As a New York insider, Checketts added, ''I know every concert promoter.'' He plans to double-book acts for St. Louis, where he recently bought the NHL's Blues, and Sandy's 20,000-seat venue.

Checketts and his financial advisers also stressed that any characterization that RSL is short on capital is wrong. Instead, they say, the business plan calls for tapping the bulk of the revenue to pay down debt beyond the minimum payments.

''It's the optimal use of your working capital,'' explained Gary Reimer, RSL's chief financial officer.

Checketts also insists there is enough ''cushion'' in the plan if attendance projections fall shy.

''We didn't do this on the back of an envelope,'' he said, pointing to $24 million RSL already has invested between the purchase of the team, startup costs and land acquisition. ''That should show we're serious.''

RSL is shooting for a July 4, 2008, opening that would feature a match with Real Madrid. But Checketts conceded the construction timeline is ''in danger of slipping'' because of the prolonged negotiations.

Even so, the owner says he is confident the necessary five council votes for a stadium remain intact, along with support from Corroon, who is waiting for the DRC to sign off.

''I've taken Peter Corroon at his word'' that the deal will happen, he said. ''And I believe him.''

Despite the stadium starts and stops, Checketts says the key for him always has been to say ''with a clear conscience'' that this is a good deal for the public.

''This is the best public-private partnership in the country,'' he said. ''The public gets the land plus a guaranteed return on their investment. That is unlike any deal I am aware of.''


* Tribune reporter CHRISTOPHER SMART contributed to this story.

Beer is in, maybe skating, too

Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts reaffirmed Tuesday that the team ''will sell beer'' at the proposed Sandy stadium.

Other stadium elements the team is considering:

* Selling the naming rights to a ''blue-chip'' company. RSL says it already has at least one suitor.

* Flooding the field in winter to create a public skating rink.

* Opening the venue to rodeos, lacrosse, prep football championships, Utah-BYU women's soccer matches, graduations and receptions.

* Staging live shows over a five-month season. The stadium could be converted into a concert venue in 24 hours.

* Providing free game tickets - 10,000 would be handed out per year - for underprivileged kids.

- Derek P. Jensen