Ryan Smith’s ownership group pledges $3B to SLC sports district, but big questions remain

City leaders see an opportunity to link the east and west sides, and give downtown a transformative boost.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Maughan of Smith Entertainment Group speaks to the Salt Lake City Council about the proposed downtown sports and entertainment district on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. At right is Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

While a top executive with Smith Entertainment Group said Tuesday his organization is prepared to sink at least $3 billion of its own money into a downtown district that pledges to breathe new life into Salt Lake City, crucial details of the massive project remained murky.

Mike Maughan, longtime business partner of pro sports magnate Ryan Smith, told the Salt Lake City Council that the proposed district would potentially include a medals plaza for a return of the Winter Olympics, leave beloved destinations like Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art “on-site,” and create a more walkable downtown with better connection points.

“We want to break down these walls and restore connectivity and flow,” Maughan said, “reuniting the east and west sides of downtown.”

The public’s first extended opportunity to weigh in on the nebulous proposal will come May 21.

Maughan said the entertainment group could collect as much as $900 million from a proposed half-a-percentage-point sales tax increase that the City Council will consider. SEG also has asserted it would need additional tax revenue in the form of property tax increment in its April application to kick off negotiations.

It remains unclear, however, how exactly SEG plans to spend those taxpayer funds.

Maughan said a portion of the money would go toward renovations at the Delta Center to accommodate the Smith-owned Utah Jazz and his newly acquired National Hockey League franchise but couldn’t pinpoint a figure for the public contribution to those upgrades when asked by council member Eva Lopez Chavez.

Another chunk of that money would help develop the district itself, but almost no details emerged for how it would be used.

In an interview with reporters after the roughly hourlong hearing with the council, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the city is still working through the details of a potential sports and entertainment district, including a site plan and 30-year operational plan.

“Those are the details that will be brought to the City Council,” the mayor said. “There will be public hearings so that our public can give us their opinions on what we’ve worked out. I do think we can get this done, though. This is the right thing, and [the] NHL needs to be downtown. The Utah Jazz need to stay downtown, and the path to get there is what we’re working on right now.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Maughan of Smith Entertainment Group takes notes, listenging to the Salt Lake City Council speak on the proposed downtown sports and entertainment district on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. He is joined by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, left, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Council Chair Victoria Petro said she hopes to meet the legal requirements set out by SB272, the recently enacted Utah law that allows for the negotiations, by coming up with an agreement that keeps the city at the table with SEG after the state deadline for a deal has passed.

That could mean approving the tax increase before knowing exactly how the money would be spent.

“There’s an element of the legislation [that] is forcing us into high-trust experiences with one another,” Petro said. “As a public servant, my job will be to craft avenues, to craft commitments, to craft good relationships that will help us maximize the interactions we have, and to make sure that the spoken commitment of keeping engagement becomes a reality.”

During the meeting, Maughan vowed to continue working with city leaders.

Concert hall, art museum may stay within district

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abravanel Halls interior in 2022.

SEG is seeking a lease with Salt Lake County for two blocks east of the Delta Center, meaning changes could be coming to the Salt Palace Convention Center, Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

Maughan told council members SEG wants the 45-year-old hall and the art museum to stay “on-site” within the district, but it’s unclear what the future holds for the facilities, which could be renovated or rebuilt entirely.

County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Tuesday a deal for the blocks is yet to be determined.

After days of speculation about the future of the concert hall, Wilson released a joint statement with SEG and the Utah Symphony on Tuesday afternoon saying no decisions have been made about the future of the venue.

The county mayor’s office, symphony and SEG are weighing the costs of renovating the concert hall — estimated to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars — with the potential benefits of building a new venue downtown.

“The conversations are in the very early stages,” the statement said, “yet there is a clear commitment to providing a world-class concert hall that continues to build upon the Utah Symphony’s legacy and that of its legendary music director, Maurice Abravanel.”

What seems more certain is that the Salt Palace will be overhauled. Wilson told council members the expanded exhibition halls were “overbuilt,” and the creation of a downtown entertainment district could help “supercharge” the convention industry downtown.

The current Salt Palace “has some limitations,” Wilson said. “We overbuilt our exhibit halls [at the Salt Palace] for Outdoor Retailer [trade show]. They left, they came back, they’re not as big now. Right now, we’re really needing another ballroom.”

In its April 4 application to the city, SEG signaled it is willing to part with some of the revenue from the potential sales tax increase to help pay for upgrades to the Salt Palace.

What else is in store for the district?

(Ryan Smith via X) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith posted this rendering of the proposed downtown sports and entertainment district in February 2024.

Maughan said the district is going to be a hub of activity downtown that is safe, walkable and a catalyst for community gatherings, arts and cultural events.

“We will bring big brands downtown,” Maughan said, “but we’re also going to bring a lot of amazing local businesses, a lot of amazing local restaurants.”

SEG is in “deep conversations” with the Olympics for putting a new medals plaza in the middle of the proposed district, Maughan said, and envisions the wider area as a destination for events beyond sports, including concerts, conventions and community gatherings.

The district could also put renewed focus on Japantown, the historic Asian American community that was largely displaced by the expansion of the Salt Palace in the 1960s. Wilson responded to community speculation — and fears — about the future of the area.

“There hasn’t ever been an interest in tearing down churches; I want to be clear about that,” she said. “We honor the Japanese Church of Christ, the Buddhist temple, the cultural center.”

The proposed investment, the county mayor said, would be a boon to the area.

“Frankly,” she said, “there’s only upside right now compared to where we are for the Japanese community, and I look forward to engagement in the months to come as we figure this out together.”

The council is scheduled to cast a final vote on a deal July 2, but city officials stressed that the date of a decision could change to accommodate more time for negotiation.