Months before The Larry H. Miller Co. made waves by announcing it would lead a coalition to bring Major League Baseball to Salt Lake City’s west side, developers behind the company’s chosen site had another potential suitor in mind.
Emails obtained through a public records request show major players in the quest to develop the 100-acre Power District site along North Temple first tried to court Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith last September with the idea of a ballpark.
The talks came after an announcement Smith made in August about his intent to bring another professional sports franchise to the Beehive State and reveal Salt Lake City’s fervor for keeping professional sports in Utah’s capital.
“If there’s any discussion about a big project happening in the state,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in an interview, “then I want it to be in Salt Lake City — a big, catalytic investment project like that.”
A Jazz spokesperson declined to comment on the talks.
In a Sept. 12 email to Mendenhall’s top staffers, Josh Caldwell, an executive with Minneapolis-based construction company Mortenson, said he talked to Gary Hoogeveen, CEO of Power District landowner Rocky Mountain Power, about the possibility of bringing Major League Baseball to Salt Lake City.
“Having delivered nearly 250 professional and collegiate sports and entertainment facilities across the country, including sports‐anchored entertainment districts such as Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park and the Golden State Warriors’ Thrive City,” Caldwell wrote, “we’re your local sports industry expert in terms of real estate and entertainment districts. Specifically, we are also very well connected with the MLB.”
On the heels of a big announcement
Caldwell said the timing of the conversation was linked to Smith’s intent to expand his sports enterprises.
Smith announced Aug. 19 that he was partnering with sports investment firm Arctcos and wanted to bring a third pro team to Utah, days after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said publicly that he would like to see Major League Baseball come to the state and that the former Draper prison site, now dubbed The Point, would be a “great place” to host a club.
The first external pitch about the Power District site, Caldwell said in that Sept. 12 email, was to Mendenhall, who gave the idea “rousing support.”
A week earlier, Caldwell and the mayor spoke about the possibility of a major league ballpark on the west side during a Downtown Alliance trip to Cincinnati that included a tour of the Ohio city’s sports and entertainment district.
“I imagine she will/has talked to you about it,” Caldwell wrote to the staffers, “but the Mayor asked me to reach out and coordinate with your team around the resources I have at my disposal to help put together a proposal that she can give to Ryan Smith as an effort to prove the benefits and validity of bringing MLB to SLC, specifically to the Power District.”
Mendenhall said she met with Smith and Cox separately over Zoom early on to introduce the concept and highlight the site’s proximity to downtown, the international airport and a TRAX light rail line.
Weeks later, Smith, the mayor and Hoogeveen walked the site, Mendenhall said in an interview, to get a sense of the scale and placement of the development.
“He (Smith) was really intrigued at the space when we visited the site in person,” the mayor said, “and also at the readiness of Rocky Mountain Power as the landowner to be a partner in this conversation.”
But in the weeks that followed, Mendenhall said, there wasn’t much engagement with the Jazz owner.
“He was rather difficult to pin down and to have a meeting with,” she said. “He had a lot going on.”
Public financing options discussed
Emails from Caldwell show there was work behind the scenes to pull together data analytics to support bringing MLB to Salt Lake City, including a site investigation, feasibility study, master plan for the Power District, and a “speed to market” analysis.
The team putting together the proposal included Mortenson, renowned sports venue architectural firm Populous and the sports analytics firm Elevate.
On Oct. 19, Caldwell emailed Mendenhall’s chief of staff, Rachel Otto, and the chief operating officer of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, Danny Walz, to say work on the baseball proposal was moving forward, but the group needed to know what public financing options were available from the city.
“Let’s plan to catch up early next week,” Caldwell wrote Oct. 29. “We’ve had some good progress on our side and I can give you some positive updating. I want to get a better sense for available public funding options including whether/how [tax increment financing] comes into play.”
An RDA spokesperson said Walz told Mortenson that because the Power District falls within the agency’s North Temple project area, it could qualify for public funding options such as loans and tax increment reimbursement.
Mendenhall said her office never discussed additional public financing possibilities for the project with Mortenson.
Talks with Smith ‘fizzled’
Efforts to connect with Smith and his inner circle persisted until at least November, records show. Caldwell emailed Otto on Nov. 17, asking her to connect him with Mike Maughan, a top Smith deputy.
“In thinking more about the conversation about Mike Maughan, assuming you agree it could be advantageous to our cause,” he wrote, “I would like to take you up on your offer to make introductions for me. Let me know if you have any other thoughts in this regard.”
The email went unanswered by Otto, and Caldwell sent a follow-up message Nov. 28.
Smith knew the city would be able to facilitate conversations about development, zoning and transit so he could get a better idea of the site’s feasibility, Mendenhall said, but he never made those requests of officials.
The mayor said she had lunch with Smith in the first week of December to discuss February’s NBA All-Star Game, and, at that point, Major League Baseball was no longer on his radar.
“There wasn’t a point where Ryan said to me, ‘Never mind, thanks so much for bringing us that,’” Mendenhall said. “But his interest just fizzled out on MLB in terms of his conversation with the city.”
On Saturday, Smith indicated on Twitter that he was pursuing an NHL team, saying the effort to bring North America’s top hockey league to the Beehive State was “in motion.” Late last month, according to a report, Smith met with the league’s commissioner in New York.
LHM enters the discussion
The Larry H. Miller Co., which is heading up the highly publicized effort to attract big league ball, “learned more” about the Power District as a potential site Jan. 24 in a meeting with Mortenson and Rocky Mountain Power, a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.
“After doing our own due diligence, we shared the possibilities with Mayor Mendenhall and her team in the first quarter of 2023,” Amanda Covington, the Miller company’s chief corporate affairs officer, said. “We believe bringing a Major League Baseball team to the west side of Salt Lake City is a viable option.”
Covington said the Millers had been in contact with MLB since April 2022 but first learned about the North Temple location early this year.
Smith, meanwhile, is on the expansive list of business, civic and government leaders — including the governor — supporting the effort to bring a team to Utah.
Salt Lake City, Mendenhall said, played no role in facilitating conversations among Mortenson, Rocky Mountain Power and The Larry H. Miller Co.
The mayor has insisted that discussions about MLB never factored into her administration’s attempt to keep the Miller-owned Salt Lake Bees in Utah’s capital (they’re moving to South Jordan’s Daybreak after the 2024 season) and that she became aware of the company’s coalition to attract a big league club in January.
She remains eager, however, to see the west side play ball.
“The Power District, I believe, is a very good idea for Major League Baseball,” Mendenhall said, “and I’m glad that the big idea of it reached the Millers, who are ready to carry this ambition forward, even if we had initially given it to Ryan.”
— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Andy Larsen contributed to this story.
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