Exclusive: SLC Council members shared scathing text messages about Utah MLB ballpark deal

They complained about the Larry H. Miller Co. and fretted about lost revenue, lost control of land use, and, mostly, how the big league pursuit could harm west-siders.

(The Larry H. Miller Co.) The Larry H. Miller Co. released renderings for its plans for the Power District development on Salt Lake City’s west side on Feb. 15, 2024. The 100-acre site along North Temple is where the company's proposed Major League Baseball stadium would be built. Text messages shows city officials worry about the ultimate impact on the west side.

Behind the scenes, the Utah Way went out the window.


“Negotiating with terrorists.”

“Gentrified beyond control.”

Those terms represent a sampling of the blunt banter bandied about by Salt Lake City Council members as Utah lawmakers and one of the state’s most powerful companies formulated a billion-dollar plan to lure Major League Baseball to the west side.

In text messages obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request, council members and their staffers expressed fears over the first swing at HB562, a state-backed proposal to build a big league stadium on North Temple near Redwood Road, warning it ultimately would harm the west side and steer money from city coffers that would otherwise be used to bring additional services to the area.

The revealing exchanges strike a distinctly different tone from the diplomatic one projected in a joint statement released by the council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall the day after lawmakers peeled back the curtain on the bill, which creates a Fairpark land authority and commits hundreds of millions of public dollars to stadium construction.

“While we are excited about and supportive of the possibility of bringing Major League Baseball to Salt Lake City,” Mendenhall spokesperson Andrew Wittenberg said in a Feb. 21 statement, “this bill creates immediate concerns about the apparent diversion of tax revenue and land use away from city services, regardless of whether we ever see [an] MLB team in Utah.”

Out of public view, though, anxieties ran much deeper and descriptions of the legislation — and its architects — were more scathing.

‘Like we’re negotiating with terrorists’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council member Darin Mano at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. In text exchanges, he expressed deep concerns about early iterations of a legislative measure to fund a Major League Baseball stadium.

The most biting messages came between council members Darin Mano and Alejandro Puy a day after Puy, who represents a swath of the west side, broke from the approved statement and told The Tribune the legislation was tantamount to “a slap in the face” by the Larry H. Miller Co., the influential Sandy-based business leading the charge to bring MLB to the Beehive State.

In a text on the afternoon of Feb. 22, the day the story published, Mano told Puy he was glad his council colleague spoke out in the newspaper.

“I’m tired of us being forced to ‘play nice’ with LHM,” Mano wrote, “and handle them with kid gloves.” (The messages do not name any Miller company officials.)

In response, Puy acknowledged his remarks upset some but said he was just stating what he truly believed. The Miller company, he added, “screwed us and lied to our faces.”

“Does it sound to you,” Mano texted Puy the following morning, “like we’re negotiating with terrorists?”

Puy answered back, hinting that conditions were shifting. “They seem to have moved significantly,” he said, adding that upsetting the city “bombs the idea of baseball, so we hold one card.”

“Yep,” Mano, who represents the Ballpark and Liberty Wells neighborhoods, fired back. “But the mayor won’t use those cards. She wouldn’t with the [Salt Lake] Bees. We played nice and kept everything quiet for over a year because we thought we could get them to stay. And you see how that worked out.”

(Screenshot) Text exchanges among Salt Lake City officials regarding legislation designed to bring Major League Baseball to Utah.

Early last year, the Miller company’s Triple-A team announced it would play its last season in Utah’s capital in 2024 before departing to a new home in South Jordan’s Daybreak. The mayor and her staff tried to persuade the Bees to stay but ultimately struck out. Mendenhall has said her city struggled to compete with an expanse of developable land the company owned in Daybreak.

‘Gentrified beyond control’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro Puy speaks before being sworn as a Salt Lake City Council member in January 2024. Puy raised early warnings about the baseball legislation and noted movement to address city concerns.

Puy said in the messages with Mano that he thought the Miller company was open to the city’s suggestions for changing the bill.

The mayor and council Chair Victoria Petro, who also represents the west side, huddled with the company the night before, Puy said, and experienced “positive movement.” The Miller group, he said, wants to show unity in Utah’s support for baseball, but the city being at odds over the proposal would hinder the company’s chances of scoring a team.

Mano apparently remained unsold on the idea even if the measure was altered.

“My worry is that the mayor thinks the positives of getting baseball outweigh the negatives of screwing over the west side,” he said. “Even if they adopt the changes, the entire west side gets gentrified beyond control.

“And do you really think they are going to design this in a way that uplifts the west side, and actually care about anything beyond their borders?” he asked. “Victoria is genuinely concerned about the west side, but I worry she [thinks] she can ensure it happens in the right way and I just don’t see it.”

Fears over how the west side would be affected weren’t confined to this exchange. They popped up in another message Puy shared in a group chat with council members and staffers.

In that thread, the west-side council member sent a meme depicting a scene from the Cartoon Network’s “Eric Andre Show” in which Andre apparently guns down co-star Hannibal Buress. In the picture, Buress’ lifeless body is labeled “west side” while a pistol-wielding Andre is labeled, “freeways, freight rail, refineries, pollution, downzoning, racism.”

“Stadiums,” the meme continues, “don’t pay for themselves.”

Puy later told The Tribune a neighbor shared the meme with him and that he considered it “appropriate” for the group chat.

Diversion of tax revenue ‘insidious’

In a group chat with council members, council staffer Jennifer Bruno called the diversion of energy and telecommunications taxes “especially problematic” if an MLB franchise enticed, as would be expected, residents to the area.

“Those taxes,” she wrote, “help us pay for the cost of hosting those additional people (in addition to property tax).”

Bruno also cautioned that the draft language would allow the new authority to divert all property tax increment from taxing entities. That would include the Salt Lake City School District.

“FYI, this authority could be created whether or not they have baseball,” she noted. “Nothing triggering it when/if we get a team. And our money is diverted starting July 1. Property tax diverted starting Jan. 1.”

First-term council member Eva Lopez Chavez, who represents downtown and nearby areas, had a simple two-word response.

“Insidious,” she said. “Truly.”

(Screenshots) Text exchanges among Salt Lake City officials regarding legislation designed to help bring Major League Baseball to Utah.

When The Tribune asked her about the text, Lopez Chavez said she stands by her characterization of the bill’s draft language. It’s important, she added, for the city to have control of revenue.

Mendenhall, Miller company respond

Wittenberg, Mendenhall’s spokesperson, told The Tribune the mayor’s job is to act in the best interest of the city and its residents.

“West-side communities have long requested catalytic, transformational investments to support the area’s economic stability and growth. What is now possible with the Power District and Major League Baseball through recent state legislation could bring just that,” he said in a statement. “Projects of this scale are complex, negotiation is required, and partnership is fundamental to any success. LHM has been and continues to be a critical, invested partner to Salt Lake City.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City Council members, Jordan River Commission leadership, community council leaders, Rocky Mountain Power executives, and baseball players from the west side, pose for a photo during a news conference on the Power District development, including a possible Major League Baseball park, on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

Miller company spokesperson Amanda Covington echoed that sentiment, saying the company will continue to collaborate with state and local leaders to bring a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to the west side.

“This is an unprecedented private and public partnership that will help revitalize the western gateway to the capital city and is the ideal location to welcome Major League Baseball,” Covington said. “We want to thank leaders at the state, local and community levels who share our vision to bring a bold idea to life.”

CEO Steve Starks said the company has always maintained a collaborative and inclusive approach to community-building. The Power District development, he said, would be no different.

“I am proud of the work our team did beginning months ago, and I am grateful for Mayor Mendenhall and our many west-side and state leaders for their passion and vision,” Starks said in a statement. “We are incredibly excited and our commitment to this transformative investment has never been stronger.”

Mano, Puy explain their exchange

In an interview this week, Mano said he probably would have used a different word than “terrorist” had he known his messages would be publicized.

The conversation with Puy, he said, represents a snapshot of frustration before the city scored a better result in the final legislation.

“What I meant was just that it felt like we were trying to do the best at fighting for things that would make this bill positive for the west side,” he said, “and that all of our concerns were being ignored.”

Labeling himself one of the ballpark’s “less supportive council members,” Mano said he hopes the project doesn’t hurt the area, but he worries that major investments such as sports venues often become a “vacuum for activity and life” near them and can end up raising costs of housing, leading to the displacement of longtime residents.

While he believes Petro, the council chair, is an effective advocate for west-siders and could get the area’s concerns represented in a development, he still doesn’t see how the ballpark could be built in a way that benefits its neighbors.

“I won’t say it can’t be done right,” Mano said. “I don’t see a path to it being done right.”

Mano, who announced last week that he likely won’t see reelection next year, also walked back his criticism of the mayor’s handling of the Bees’ relocation, saying “she did an excellent job with those negotiations” and secured a major philanthropic commitment, with the Miller foundation pledging $22 million and heading up an overall $100 million fundraising push for the Ballpark neighborhood.

For his part, Puy said much of the anger expressed in the messages was directed at the Miller company because the business has led the lobbying — “whipping” up votes, a staffer wrote — to bring the big leagues to Utah.

He said the Miller group spent months working with the city and west-side leaders to determine how to handle the path to state funding. Frustration, he said, stemmed from many feeling “betrayed” by the initial bill.

“It was incredibly disappointing and tone deaf,” he said. “It was actually kind of shocking how tone deaf that was.”

Puy said the Miller company spent months saying the bill would incorporate the city’s shared vision for the area but ended up pushing out elected officials, cutting the city out of land use decisions and diverting funds, “basically screwing the rest of the city, right, because then we have to come up with the money to pay for the services.”

After the first version went public, Puy said, city officials pushed for clarity on when the land authority would receive public money and for what reason, allowing the city to retain some tax revenue, and keeping the city at the table to create a zoning agreement by year’s end.

Covington said the Miller company spent months working closely with officials representing the mayor’s office and the council to design a project that included city land use planning, an agreement to ensure services were appropriately funded, city representation on the land authority’s board, and “appropriate” boundaries for the district.

“As we worked through the legislative process,” she said, “we were able to further define these items in HB562.”

Council chair fears repercussions

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro speaks at a meeting in May 2023. She has pledged to work to make the baseball project a plus for the west side.

In the end, lawmakers approved a measure that leaves a portion of the tax revenue with the city, codifies language allowing the council to create a development agreement, and lets the city choose an elected representative to serve on the land authority’s board. Tax diversions are set to begin this year to benefit the Jordan River.

Petro said she fought unsuccessfully to have money for the development area routed through the city’s Redevelopment Agency instead of a land authority until Utah was awarded a team and a ballpark was needed.

She believes there is a path to pulling off a ballpark project and said the Miller group has been responsive. She stopped short, however, of saying she was satisfied with the final bill.

“It’s what we have, and we have a good partner in LHM,” Petro said. “I know that I fought as hard as I could. I left it all on the field in this legislative session. Now that I understand the hand that I was dealt, I’m going to make it work.”

Petro pledged to not let the project displace anyone who doesn’t want to move, take care of area businesses and “stay at whatever table I need to” as an advocate.

She worries, however, that these text messages — sent in the “heat of battle” before cooler heads prevailed — may cost her that seat.

“There are real players at the table who have more leverage than me on any of my most powerful days,” she said, “who will shape my community, the place where I raise my kids, the place where my kids’ friends are in danger of being displaced.”

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