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With lawmakers pondering $2B for pro sports, rural Utah wonders what’s in it for them

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, seen here on the Senate floor, Feb. 26, 2024, says new sports franchises would create another stream of tax revenue that would benefit all Utahns, regardless of whether they live near the stadiums or not.
Sean Higgins
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, seen here on the Senate floor, Feb. 26, 2024, says new sports franchises would create another stream of tax revenue that would benefit all Utahns, regardless of whether they live near the stadiums or not.

Efforts to bring pro baseball and hockey to Salt Lake City could include raising nearly $2 billion in public money.

Two bills — one to create a restoration district for a baseball stadium in the Fairpark and Poplar Grove neighborhoods of Salt Lake City and the other to do the same downtown for a new basketball and hockey arena — would create a framework of tax increases to help build the new facilities. That has raised some eyebrows in rural and southern Utah.

Sheep farmer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Carson Jorgensen said it’s “pretty much unanimous” that people in his part of the state are “tired of being taxed for things that they don't actually want, that a small group of people get to decide who gets to make this tax.”

Some of those tax increases would be local to Salt Lake City. Others, like an increase to transient room tax — or hotel tax — would apply outside of Salt Lake County.

Although modern stadiums have price tags in the billions of dollars, bill sponsors maintain that the investment will mostly come from visitors to the state paying increased taxes on things like hotel rooms and rental cars. The bet is that it will pay off in the long run.

“Having an asset like this increases the state's economic capacity, it increases visitation,” said baseball stadium bill sponsor Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore. “It increases economic performance and it generates the tools to be able to take Utah to continue on this upward trajectory where we will be able to do a lot more.”

Fillmore added that the facilities could also open the doors to more revenue generation in the form of big-name concerts and other sporting events like college football bowl games. Down the line, that revenue would then go back into other state programs.

People who come here just to attend a ballgame are going to probably stay in Salt Lake, but that means that we're raising money to help Washington County with their EMS and search and rescue and the national parks,” he said. “So I reject the idea that they don't benefit.”

That said, the economic benefits sports teams have on surrounding communities are considered by some economists to be minimal.

When it comes to the Democrats, they are largely supportive of the efforts to revitalize parts of Utah’s capital city.

“The west side of Salt Lake City is very excited about this opportunity,” said Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe. “I think Sen. [Luz] Escamilla, who would be the senator of this area, has worked with her community to really put some guidelines in place. They look at this as a great opportunity to enhance the Jordan River and that area of the community.”

But for Jorgensen and others off of the Wasatch Front, there is concern that the Legislature is focusing too much on the distant future when there are other pressing needs. Neither Major League Baseball nor the National Hockey League has committed to bringing a team to Utah and there’s no guarantee that will happen.

“Right now there are people in Utah lying awake at night wondering how they're going to meet rent or how they're going to pay for groceries this next month and how they're going to afford their kids' braces,” Jorgensen said. “And yet, the Legislature says let’s take another $2 billion to build something we don't really need.”

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers said he has met with concerned constituents in his southern Utah district, and there has been some misunderstanding of how the taxes would function.

“It was interpreted … by a number of people in Washington County that the tax was going to be on the hoteliers, meaning that they would pay the tax,” he said. “But we all know that that's not how it works, that $3 on a $200 room would be paid by the person who's renting that room.”

Vickers added there was “a provision to allow for some of that transient room tax to go to EMS services for smaller counties.”

And according to Fillmore, that public investment would also be protected if a stadium deal falls through.

“None of the taxes that are there to pay for the debt service come until we get a franchise agreement,” he said.

That could be years from now. According to Sports Business Journal, MLB has said they are unlikely to expand until the 2030s and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league has “no plans” to expand at the moment but is open to the possibility.

That has not squelched concerns from those who think any decision on such a substantial public investment should go directly to the people. For Jorgensen, that means putting the stadium projects up for a public referendum vote in November.

“This affects the entire state equally,” he said. “They should all have a say in how it goes.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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