GLENDALE, Ariz. — The return of the NHL to Winnipeg appears to be on hold for another year, as the City of Glendale has agreed to meet the league’s requirements for keeping the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona for the 2010-2011 season.
Glendale’s seven-member city council voted unanimously tonight to approve a plan spend up to $25 million to hold on to the troubled franchise for another year if the NHL doesn’t find a new buyer dedicated to keeping it in Arizona.
The widely expected move buys Glendale, a western Phoenix suburb with 253,000 people, anywhere from a few more weeks to another year to protect its $180-million investment in Jobing.com Arena, as well as the future of the adjacent Westgate City Center, an 8-million-square foot commercial development.
The cash will not be paid out to the NHL if a new buyer is found, pledged Glendale city manager Ed Beasley, who described the "hypothetical payment" as a fee to the NHL for operating the arena — not an agreement to cover the team’s losses.
Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs called the payment "bridge financing," not an expenditure of public funds. She also expressed annoyance at the criticism directed toward her city.
"This is nothing more than an insurance policy which allows us to move forward," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an address to council.
A sale to an owner that will keep the Coyotes in Glendale is coming soon, Daly said to cheers from about 250 Coyotes fans inside the Glendale council gallery.
No names were mentioned, but councillors suggested both Ice Edge Holdings and Jerry Reinsdorf remain in the running.
City manager Beasley must now convince financial institutions to extend the city $25 million worth of credit. If he fails to do so, there remains a chance — growing more remote by the day, however — the team could still be moved this year.
Several Coyotes fans who watched the proceedings expressed frustration the team’s financial woes have turned into a soap opera.
Andrew Williams insisted the Coyotes are gaining traction in Arizona and the Coyotes' strong showing at the end of the regular season will only help the team next year.
"Arizona is one of the toughest places for any team," said the Phoenix resident. "The (NFL) Cardinals, one of the oldest teams in sport, took 20 years to develop a fan base."
In an ironic twist, the prospect of the team leaving has some Coyotes concerned Winnipeg hockey fans are acting like vultures.
"The level of hate from Winnipeg people? My god!" said Sueann Canfield. "I think Winnipeg should have a team, but come on. Don’t wish what happened to you to happen to us."
Several dozen fans addressed council to express support for the team, but a minority feared the additional expenditure of public funds — and the appearance the city is being blackmailed by the NHL.
Glendale councillors may not have a choice. Even Cactus Coun. Phil Lieberman, who initially spoke out against the plan as vague and financially irresponsible, said he fears the effects on Westgate Center if the Coyotes leave town and Jobing.com Arena becomes a white elephant.
Retailers and restaurants at the complex depend on the traffic at the games to bring in bodies, as Westgate sits at the western fringe of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Just before lunch on Tuesday, foot traffic at the complex was light. There was nobody wasting away at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville or any of the other restaurants facing the north entrance to Jobing.com Arena.
That said, businesses in and around Westgate may also pay a price for keeping the team in Glendale. The rescue plan for the Coyotes calls for the creation of a community facilities district, or CFD which would funnel money into the team from area land-owners.
Lieberman compared the CFD to a new tax on businesses and expressed skepticism the district could be set up in time.
Council was told it may go ahead even if a new owner is found for the Coyotes. But all of this may be subject to yet another legal battle.
The Goldwater Institute, an Arizona taxpayers’ watchdog, considers both the creation of a CFD to fund the arena and the proposed bailout plan to be illegal. Arizona law prevents municipalities from providing excessive subsidies to private businesses.
The institute has already taken the City of Glendale to court over its failure to disclose the nature of its negotiations to hold on to the Coyotes. More legal action may take place if the city goes ahead with its plan to cover the Coyotes’ losses.
Last night’s vote took place at the end of 14-item council meeting that also saw Glendale politicians approve matters such as a new liquor licence the Bangkok Thai Bar B Q and the Desert Mirage Golf Course and a contract for a police psychologist.
In Winnipeg, minor issues like this are referred to the Board of Adjustment or community committees.
But the real difference between the Phoenix area and Winnipeg is the number of hockey fans who show up at save-the-franchise rallies.
About 250 Coyotes fans attended Glendale city council tonight. There were several empty seats in the 285-seat gallery. Fifteen years ago this week, on May 16, 1995, about 35,000 people crammed themselves into The Forks to scream "Save the Jets" when it first became apparent the NHL was on its way out of Winnipeg.