George Pyle: I’m in Oslo. But I see a big case of Stockholm syndrome in Salt Lake City.

The real driving force for a downtown sports district is not what Ryan Smith offers as much as what he threatens to take away.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) City Hall and downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

OSLO — I’ve been away for a while, so I might have missed something.

But the idea that downtown Salt Lake City is wanting for restaurants, bars, things to do, tall buildings and upscale housing strikes me as odd. It seems that the only things the neighborhood lacks is housing that normal people can afford, and maybe being able to walk down the avenue without being plowed under by a car or frightened by generations of homeless people destroyed by madness.

But then came Ryan Smith, one of those young dudes who somehow turned some unremarkable software into a major fortune, bought the Utah Jazz and just lured Arizona’s National Hockey League team to Utah.

He started pitching his ideas for a new downtown sports and entertainment district, into which he says he will pour $3 billion of his own money, if he can get something shy of another billion via a fractional hike in the city’s local sales tax. And if the city will give him the power to redevelop the neighborhood to suit his Blade Runner-meets-Disneyland urban fancy.

It’s not that any of this is an altogether bad idea, even though downtown SLC is already a vibrant neighborhood, a forest of construction cranes that’s more of a 24-hour city every day.

What gnaws is that the real driving force here is not what Smith offers as much as what he threatens to take away.

The joy with which conservative state lawmakers and liberal city officials have all become giddy Smith acolytes, welcomed to his Delta Center owner’s box and his courtside seats, feels like a case of Stockholm syndrome. You know, the dynamic where people held hostage start to sympathize with, even admire, their captors.

Imagine if our state lawmakers had been so eager to do something that would actually make Utah a better place. Such as, maybe, approving Medicaid expansion right away instead of dragging their feet for years.

Our elected officials aren’t being asked to measure Smith’s plan against the status quo and decide whether it would be worth turning over so much public money and control to one developer, without even considering what other plans might be on offer.

They can only balance Smith’s pitch against the possibility that, already looking for a new home for his hockey team, the smooth entrepreneur might move the Jazz out to the corner of 199th Street and Plowed Ground, leaving a huge hole downtown.

There’s no question that downtown is the place for modern sports temples. We see them in Denver, Phoenix, Cleveland, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Francisco and, to the extent that it has a downtown, Los Angeles.

I’ve been to a few of those, and the atmosphere is striking. Ball parks and basketball/hockey stadiums surrounded by hotels and restaurants and served by frequent public transit is something any city should want.

But I can also point you to a few cities (mostly in Europe) where nightlife and daylife are absolutely jumping, no sports in sight, thanks to a culture of year-round sidewalk dining, drinking and strolling. Something SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall also dreams of.

Remember, as Tribune’s stats guy Andy Larsen has ably demonstrated, most of the cash dropped in these modern coliseums is not new money so much as it is discretionary spending not spent elsewhere, at movie theaters or bowling alleys or bars in other parts of the valley.

The fact that the valley’s main sports venue, wherever it is, won’t be a cash generator as much as a money siphon means Smith has city, county and state officials over the proverbial barrel.

The choice isn’t between downtown as it is or downtown as Smith wants it. It’s between what Smith wants or downtown without hockey or basketball. With a giant barn that either needs to be filled with more rock concerts, or torn down.

Some in Salt Lake City are still smarting from the missed opportunity to house the stadium for the Real Salt Lake soccer team, probably in the Fairpark area, where the Miller family now envisions a Major League Baseball stadium and ancillary developments — also with a very large taxpayer commitment.

(Once it seemed a big loss for Salt Lake City when the new printing plant then jointly owned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News was built way out in West Valley. But it’s probably just as well that that now-silent publishing facility isn’t gathering dust downtown.)

So, sure, do Smith’s deal. Keep the sports cash flowing to downtown. It’s not as if, apparently, we have much of a choice.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle is the opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.

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