A bill emerged Thursday on Utah's Capitol Hill that could bring a Real Salt Lake stadium to Sandy and salvage Utah's two-year-old soccer franchise, which is being aggressively courted by investors in St. Louis.
If the measure passes - it was crafted behind closed doors this week with the blessing of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and legislative leadership - it would snatch at least $20 million for the project out of Salt Lake County coffers, which critics allege could result in a countywide property-tax hike.
The move to revive a stadium in Sandy spells the end of talk to relocate RSL to the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City or the former Geneva Steel site in central Utah County.
Late Thursday, RSL released a statement saying the Geneva location, owned by Anderson Development, is "not a viable option for our team or the stadium project."
"We are no longer entertaining this offer," the team said. "Our discussions are now concluded."
So the latest stadium score card: Sandy or St. Louis. And RSL is mum on which spot it prefers.
Jeff Cooper, the St. Louis-based attorney negotiating with RSL to buy the team, is convinced a move to the Midwest is likely.
"I'm very excited for the folks in St. Louis because I do think it's going to happen," he said. "I am very sorry for the fans in Salt Lake City. We went through the same thing in football with the Cardinals, when they went to Arizona, and it's just a horrible thing."
Cooper said his investment group has "two or three options" on stadium sites that could be settled in a matter of days. From there, he added, it's just a matter of working out the purchase with RSL owner Dave Checketts.
Cooper went on to criticize government officials in Utah for a lack of vision and said the RSL fans - "the best fans in the MLS" - deserve better.
"It's a classic case of, 'You don't appreciate what you've lost until it's gone,' " he said.
But the team isn't saying it's leaving - at least yet - and HB38 aims to keep RSL in Utah by devising fresh funding plans for a Sandy stadium.
The once-innocuous bill, sponsored by Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, was drastically amended Thursday. The new version would divert 15 percent, roughly $2 million a year, of the county's hotel taxes to the stadium project beginning in July until 2017. It comes three days after county Mayor Peter Corroon ruled against steering $30 million in hotel taxes - though much of that wouldn't be tapped until 2011 - toward the project. He called the financing plan an "unsafe investment."
Mike Mower, a spokesman for Huntsman, acknowledged the governor helped orchestrate the new move.
"Governor Huntsman has long stated his support for professional soccer in Utah," Mower said. "He's working closely with other community leaders to try to make that a reality."
One of those insiders is Anderson, the capital's mayor.
"I support it," he said. "If that's what it takes to keep soccer in Utah and keep a sports academy and fields [in Salt Lake City], it would be a fantastic deal for the state."
Under this plan - just like the former one - the capital would get $7.5 million for youth fields along with an elite soccer academy in northwest Salt Lake City.
Anderson notes he has been closely involved in the stadium revival along with the governor and state leaders. "[House] Speaker [Greg] Curtis and I are best friends now."
But the alliance may be bad news for the county, which, according to County Councilman Joe Hatch, would be forced to boost property taxes "across the board" to cover the balance taken by the state.
"We're screwed," agreed newly elected County Councilman Jeff Allen. "You tack that on with the restaurant-tax proposal, and we're in a whole lot of trouble."
A separate bill - sponsored by Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and backed by Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan - threatens to redirect $15 million in annual restaurant taxes from the county to the suburbs.
Corroon calls the new soccer bill "troublesome" and insists it could gut the county's ability to fund conventions and tourism.
"It's regretful," he said. "It will end up hurting all the citizens of the county and the state."
Hatch, an original stadium supporter, argues 15 percent of hotel taxes is "way more" than the Legislature granted the county to do a stadium deal last year.
"If they had given us a funding mechanism this generous," he said, "we would never have had a problem."
Allen, who believes the team "absolutely" will go for the deal, nonetheless took aim at Corroon, saying the mayor's decision is "coming back to haunt the county."
"He was too worried about a re-election campaign than what's best for the county," Allen charged.
Corroon calmly rejected the claim.
"Jeff's only been here for several weeks," he said. "I don't think he fully understands the process we went through."
* Tribune reporter MATT CANHAM contributed to this story.
"It's regretful. . . . It will end up hurting all the citizens of the county and the state."PETER CORROON
S.L. County mayor
"We're screwed. . . . You tack that on with the restaurant-tax proposal, and we're in a whole lot of trouble."
S.L. County councilman