What we know about the $1 billion plan to keep hockey — and the Utah Jazz — downtown

The Salt Palace and Abravanel Hall could be impacted as stakeholders work to build a sports and entertainment district around the Delta Center.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hockey fans celebrate the introduction of the Utah NHL team during an event at the Delta Center on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. What began as an arena relocation, the owners of Utah's new hockey franchise, Ryan and Ashley Smith, are planning a major renovation to the Delta Center, and a multiblock sports and entertainment district in Salt Lake City’s downtown.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t want any arena drama in Salt Lake City.

After all, his league forced the Coyotes out of Arizona because of decades of exactly that. Fed up, the NHL last week moved the team into the open arms of Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith.

So far, negotiations have resulted in a course of action that satisfies the biggest stakeholders’ wishes: a major renovation to the Delta Center, and a multiblock sports and entertainment district in Salt Lake City’s downtown.

But behind the scenes, there was significant political wrangling to get to this point, and disagreements on the plan’s specifics remain. The plan hinges on a key tax vote in July from the Salt Lake City Council, which is expected to pass it.

Public details, though, are still sparse, with many of the most important aspects of the project still to be decided. This much is clear: The plan calls for significant changes to the Salt Palace Convention Center and could impact both historic Japantown and Abravanel Hall, a beloved center of the arts downtown.

At stake is the future of the heart of Utah’s capital.

(Ryan Smith via X) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith posted this rendering of the proposed downtown sports and entertainment district on X on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

Arena plans change

Two years ago, when Smith first envisioned bringing the NHL to Utah, he had very different dreams of where the team would play. “It’s pretty easy,” he said, “to go on a blank piece of land down south.”

He envisioned building a sports and entertainment district that would cover 100 acres and host 5,000 housing units at the south end of Salt Lake County, or across the line in Utah County. At the center would be a new arena for his hockey team.

Such a plan papered out to make Smith and his group millions. Major League Baseball’s Braves, for example, make about $59 million annually from their ownership of The Battery, the district that surrounds their stadium in suburban Atlanta. That money comes mostly in rent.

And Smith felt he had options. For example, Point of the Mountain State Land Authority co-chair Lowry Snow told The Salt Lake Tribune that his district was approached by the Smith group approximately 18 months ago about the possibility of putting a new arena there. Though discussions with The Point had died down by the end of 2023, a suburban sports district was still Smith’s plan at the beginning of the 2024 legislative session, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams told The Tribune.

“He said there were options he was open to. May have been Provo, may have been the south end of the [Salt Lake] valley, may have been Herriman, may have been Sandy,” Adams, R-Layton, said. “I honestly believe him. I don’t know if he had an exact location for it. I think there were multiple locations.”

One big question about Smith’s plan loomed: Would he move only his hockey team into the proposed new arena to the south, or would he bounce the beloved Utah Jazz there, too?

Smith told government leaders that the teams would play in separate arenas, but there was still concern.

“There were strong feelings that the possibility of building a second arena could pave the way for the Jazz leaving downtown,” state Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans attend an introduction event for the Utah NHL team at the Delta Center, on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

“Our fear was always: What if they’re not [profitable] and he has a brand-new hockey stadium, so the possibility is, when the Jazz lease expires, they would leave?” Adams told The Tribune. “And as we looked around the United States, you see [Los Angeles] is imploding, San Francisco is imploding, Chicago is imploding, New York is imploding” as residents move out of downtowns.

“If you add a vacant Delta Center that has very little utility other than basketball … we have a great economy — we have the best economy in the nation, fastest job growth — but a great economy does very little for the state,” Adams said, “if you have a capital city that implodes on you.”

Smith acknowledged that the Legislature’s influence changed his plans. “You guys literally stopped us in the middle of the process and said ‘these both have to be downtown, so go figure out what you have to do.’ … The Jazz probably go where hockey goes, if we’re going to be honest,” he said.

“That concern was motivating enough for everyone to sit around and spend a lot of time talking about those issues, and it became clear that downtown was the best option for the state and for Salt Lake City,” McCay said.

Some in the Legislature had reservations about going all-in on Salt Lake City. “The biggest problem is the mayor of SLC’s lack of respect for the policing of her city,” Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, the House sponsor of the legislation, wrote the day before the bill passed in an email obtained through an open records request. “So we are requiring more of her as well.” Indeed, the measure requires the city to provide the Legislature’s oversight committee with a plan to address public safety, homelessness and other issues in the district.

Adams credited Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson for their role in pushing for the arena to stay downtown. University of Utah President Taylor Randall was involved in talks, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was also seen as a stakeholder.

Latter-day Saint apostle Ronald Rasband and general authority Seventy Clark Gilbert attended the NHL’s news conference at the Delta Center last week. The church has publicly supported the idea of a downtown sports and entertainment district. Smith told church officials that “you guys will love” the sports district.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall enters the Delta Center before an event to introduce the Utah NHL team on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

SLC’s sports district

The result was SB272, co-sponsored by McCay and Hawkins and signed by Gov. Spencer Cox. The bill allows Smith to apply for a “revitalization zone” in downtown Salt Lake City of “up to 100 acres,” or 10 city blocks, which must include and “be roughly centered around” the block with the Delta Center.

As part of the deal, the city can pass a sales tax increase of up to 0.5 percentage points to pay for developments in the revitalization zone, including remodeling a stadium. The Legislature estimated that would result in about $54 million a year.

Smith applied for the zone April 4. The bill requires only Smith’s ownership of a team and some sparse particulars. The city has denied The Tribune’s public records request for the application.

Now Smith and city officials will negotiate the particulars of a development plan, which then must be approved by a five-person Revitalization Zone Committee. That committee contains four members of the Legislature and one member appointed by the governor.

Smith Entertainment Group spokespersons declined to share details of the plan, citing needed development time in the weeks to come, but various sources familiar with conversations revealed some of what’s been discussed so far. The Tribune is not using their names because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

In particular, the plan primarily involves city blocks east of the arena, the current primary tenant of which is the Salt Palace Convention Center. Salt Lake County owns the center’s 515,000 square feet of exhibition space, along with the land the center is placed on — placing the county, too, at the heart of negotiations about the sports district.

Multiple versions of a revitalization plan have circulated among government officials. Most involve a massive downsizing of the convention center, allowing room for the development of Smith’s entertainment district, which would include housing, retail, offices, hotels and restaurants.

Some versions of the plan include reopening 100 South, which is currently covered by the Salt Palace between West Temple and 200 West, as a pedestrian walkway.

Adams compared the west side of the convention center to the backside of a shopping center and believes the project provides an opportunity to improve the area.

“It’s about having more flow, more energy, more passion, more activity, more arts, more education,” Smith said. “And being able to look back 30 years from now and saying, ‘That’s the center of Salt Lake City.’”

County Mayor Jenny Wilson said discussions are still in the early stages but have accelerated because of the Coyotes’ rapid relocation.

“We’re less than a week [since] the announcement of the team, and there’s work to be done,” she said. “To date, I think the partners have been well-aligned. There’s a recognition that downtown isn’t just the city, county, state or Smith Entertainment Group. There are a lot of stakeholders and partners.”

The county also owns the land which includes Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Some versions of the Smith group plans see significant changes, renovations or even new buildings entirely for those cultural centers. Abravanel Hall turns 45 this year, and some see the concert hall as potentially needing reconstruction or movement.

Also pointing toward these blocks: this year’s omnibus liquor bill, HB548. It creates a “designated project area zone” of three blocks between South Temple and 100 South from West Temple to 400 West. There, Utah’s laws prohibiting bars near community locations will no longer apply beginning May 1.

A source familiar with the negotiations said that loosening of liquor laws just blocks from Temple Square and LDS Church headquarters would not have been possible without sign-off from Utah’s predominant faith.

Salt Lake City Council member Dan Dugan said he loves the idea of reinvigorating downtown.

“When I look at the map and I look at downtown, the whole convention center and the Salt Palace and all that area, that takes up about 30 acres, a lot of space,” he said. “It’s vital, but there’s also probably a lot of space that we could actually use in a better manner. So, some of the visions that I’ve seen and some of the renderings I’ve seen are exciting.”

But Salt Lake County Council member Jim Bradley is concerned by the potential changes he’s seen and heard — mostly due to its potential impact on the arts buildings in those blocks.

“Tearing down stuff because it is in the way is not something you just do willy-nilly. Take the example of Abravanel Hall: That would be a tragedy to tear that down and build it somewhere else,” he said. “Some people are saying, ‘Well, it needs more in rehab than what it would take to tear it down and rebuild it.’ Well, that is developers talking, ‘There’s that building that’s in my way.’

“They may not draw as big a crowd as a hockey game or a Jazz game,” Bradley added, “but (the arts) are still extremely important and part of our fiber.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abravanel Hall in 2022 before a performance of the Utah Symphony.

The Japantown district at the corner of 100 South and 200 West is also slated to be part of the revitalization zone.

More than a century ago, thousands of Japanese residents lived in the area, but the once-vibrant community was largely displaced by the construction of the Salt Palace in 1969. Now just a few buildings remain — the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, the Japanese Church of Christ and a community garden owned by the county.

“I hope we have the leadership that will recognize and will support and help us,” said Jani Iwamoto, a former state senator and leader of the effort to preserve the area. “We don’t want to move. We’ve been there for over 100 years, and I know that we’re committed. We’re not going anywhere.”

City Council member Darin Mano has said that “the inclusion of genuine reparations for Japantown” in the project would make the entertainment district the “most meaningful, culturally rich and historically significant” in the country.

Dugan also hoped to see other areas surrounding the Delta Center improved as part of the project, which could prove difficult. To the north lies land owned by the LDS Church, including the Triad Center and the Park Place parking lot — land that the faith has so far proved reluctant to include in any development plans, saving it for its own use. To the south lies recent development, including two new hotels and an apartment complex.

The Gateway mall stands to the west, but Gateway representatives told The Tribune that Smith had not approached them about the property.

Overall, Smith compared the feel of his preferred entertainment district to that of L.A. Live, the sports and entertainment district in downtown Los Angeles. Built from 2007 to 2009, L.A. Live is located next to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Crypto.com Arena, home of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, and the NHL’s Kings.

To understand the project, Smith said he and “a few” city and public officials toured L.A. Live in the past month. There, they saw the district’s restaurants and bars, concert halls and movie theaters, and hotel and condominium towers on 27 acres.

“The reason why we wanted to see that particular district was because it was right in the heart of L.A.,” Smith said. “I can’t wait to kind of show the plans on how we’re going to do it.”

Downtown Alliance Executive Director Dee Brewer said the district would push development forward in the city, comparing it to the creation of City Creek Center in 2012.

“This investment in the entertainment district is going to have the same sort of catalytic impact on additional investments,” Brewer said. “I think we’ll see more five-star hotels, we’ll see more residential towers. This gives downtown a hook to recruit the best human capital and talent.”

Inside the Delta Center

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Delta Center is photographed during an introduction for the Utah NHL team on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. On screen are team owners Ryan and Ashley Smith.

Given the downtown location and acres at his disposal, why did Smith decide to renovate the Delta Center rather than create a new arena?

“We really aren’t in a position downtown to just find a lot of land to stage and build a new arena,” Smith said. “I mean, you see how hard it is for the (LDS) Church to rebuild, how much land that takes up.”

Another benefit of renovation: It’s probably cheaper. One point in favor of this plan over creating a new arena, multiple officials said, was that a larger percentage of the sales tax increase money could be spent on elements of the entertainment district that don’t include the stadium itself.

That in-arena renovation will be significant, but not at first. This summer, the Smith group plans to make only minor improvements and adjustments to the Delta Center.

For the NHL’s previous preseason games at the arena, it hosted a capacity of about 11,000 fans with mostly unobstructed views. For NHL hockey this October, the team will install bleachers in the corners that add approximately another 1,000 seats. Officials also believe they can open up about 4,200 additional seats — though they have not yet decided whether they will, believing it might impact the overall experience for those fans.

New NHL locker rooms must be constructed for the home and away teams, and other various small changes made to the arena to allow NHL games to regularly be played. But overall, no major changes are expected. The arena also hosts more than 20 significant public events this offseason, such as the Utah Jazz’s summer league, concerts from varied artists like Blink-182, Olivia Rodrigo and Stevie Nicks, and comedy shows from Jo Koy and Kevin James.

Further construction would be in the offseasons to come, but the Smith group wants to wait until the plans are finalized outside of the arena to reveal those inside of it.

“We can figure out how to get the Delta Center renovated — and then really focus on the entrance of the experience for this downtown, so that when you come in the doors, it actually starts in the blocks surrounding,” Smith said. “That’s way more important to me than building a new arena.”

The team declined to offer a construction timeline.

Regardless, the plan is to have the Jazz and the NHL team play in the arena moving forward, which would limit most of the major construction to the offseasons for both leagues, beginning from April to June and ending in September of any given year.

Smith, in his news conference, teased “new technologies” that he believed could create a quality NHL viewing experience with improved sightlines for hockey — while maintaining the Delta Center’s trademark NBA experience. That new technology is expected to involve the arena’s seat risers, which may be able to adjust to different settings, depending on the sport being played.

Will ‘arena drama’ be avoided?

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) NHL commissioner Gary Bettman looks to Utah NHL team owner Ryan Smith during a news conference announcing the new hockey franchise at the Delta Center on Friday, April 19, 2024.

Right now, Smith’s group is working through the project’s financing — which requires securing private funding that will be reimbursed by city tax revenues. Emails obtained through an open records request show talks between Smith and representatives from D.A. Davidson Cos. investment advisers began before the legislation even passed.

The city’s first in-public interaction with the plan comes May 7, when Smith Entertainment Group representative Mike Maughan will present details to the council. That discussion will also involve council members sharing their concerns and key decision points on the project.

Then, on May 21, a public hearing on the agreement is scheduled to take place. The council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the district agreement and tax increase July 2.

All indications point to the tax increase and agreement having support from the City Council early on. One such indication: The council has until Sept. 1 to sign off on an agreement with Smith but is working on a faster timeline.

City Council Chair Victoria Petro told The Tribune that the sports district presents “a really amazing opportunity” with many pitfalls the city must protect against.

Those pitfalls, she said, include a historic return on investment on publicly funded sports venues that hasn’t been “stellar.”

“There is a paradigm shift since most of those terrible ones. … If you look at the [Miami] Marlins stadium in Little Havana, just the disaster,” she said. “The community was left behind. So I think that’s one of those [things], right? Making sure that we are doing our due diligence and studying and making sure we know what things work and what things are necessary, what things are forward-looking.”

The council chair said she wants to craft an accord that will keep Utah’s capital at the table after the state-mandated timeline for working out zoning, land use and a participation agreement has lapsed.

“I just can’t see a world in which every issue we need is settled by Sept. 1, and so making sure there is a mechanism for our actual engagement beyond that that’s in good faith, that’s really what my best outcome would be.”

Meanwhile, Mano said at a council meeting this month that, while he is still weighing the proposed tax hike, the project could help right historical wrongs — including undoing what he called the “racism-fueled, ‘urban renewal’ project” that made way for the Salt Palace in the 1960s.

Dugan, for his part, said he could support the project, but there are many conversations to be had. “I’m a big fan of the Jazz staying here in the city, so that’s how I’m leaning,” he said, “but there’s a lot to be processed in the next few months.”

Council member Sarah Young said overall she’s excited about the prospect of keeping pro sports downtown, noting the addition of a hockey team could generate revenue that would benefit the city and local businesses. Young said she’s focused on ensuring any tax increase is used to benefit downtown and not just those who attend games.

And council member Eva Lopez Chavez, whose district includes the Delta Center, has been a vocal proponent of keeping the Jazz in Utah’s capital. She used her first speech as a council member to knock a possible move to Draper.

In an interview, she called the sports district a “once-in-a-lifetime, generational investment” that will be a catalyst for downtown.

“The reason I’m in support,” Lopez Chavez said, “is because we’re seeing the ability to restore justice into our downtown in terms of opening up conversations and prioritizing Japantown, as well as looking at other facilities that are owned by other entities, like our convention center, to improve pedestrian modalities and walkways and thoroughfares in our downtown.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah NHL team players enter the Delta Center during an event introducing Utah's new hockey franchise on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Bradley, the County Council member, wanted to push the brakes. “Everything seems to be a bit anecdotal,” he said. “That’s not enough to go out and spend a billion dollars. … Some of the talk, some of the designs I’ve seen almost on the back of the napkin, I am concerned.”

Petro, however, said Smith and his group have been receptive and responsive. At one point, she said, she was nervous the Jazz would leave Salt Lake City and that Utah’s capital wouldn’t get a say, but she no longer feels that kind of pressure.

“I have the pressure of, ‘The state has said this is what we need to do,’” she said. “We need to follow the law. We don’t want to give any other reason for preemptions or any other reason for them to come in and make life more difficult on other initiatives that we’re collaborating with the state on.”

Petro said while the project is coming together quickly, city officials are trying to keep the public in the loop so residents can weigh in.

“There is lots of room,” she said, “for shaping what is going to happen there.”

What would happen if the tax increase or project plan didn’t pass city muster? Smith referenced that “Plan A, B, and C” all exist, though indicated the group is entirely focused on Plan A — the downtown renovation of the Delta Center.

Still, Bettman, the NHL commissioner, noted in an ESPN700 interview that he’s seen two plans: one that includes renovation and one that includes a new arena. He said he’s confident in either plan. Sources indicated that a newly built arena, plan B or C, would likely be located farther south.

At this point, that looks very unlikely.

“I can say that I’m pleasantly surprised that everyone recognized the opportunity and everyone jumped in and started to problem-solve, and, to me, I think that represented the strength of what Utah has to offer the NHL,” McCay, the state senator, said. “In the past, if you look at the Arizona issue, they just could not find a partnership with the city, the state and the counties, they just couldn’t find one where everyone was all pulling together — and in this situation it was quite the opposite.”

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