Downtown Salt Lake City ‘needs revitalization,’ Smith Entertainment Group argues in favor of new arena district

The Utah Legislature has passed a bill that could create nearly $1 billion in revenue for the proposed district.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox, wife Abby Cox and daughter EmmaKate take in a Jazz game with Mike Maughan as the Utah Jazz host the Oklahoma Thunder at Vivint Arena Thursday, April 6, 2023.

Downtown Salt Lake City “needs revitalization” and “reimagination,” the Utah Jazz’s ownership group says — and they’ve argued they should be at the forefront of such a movement.

“If we got all the money in the world to build the world’s very best stadium and put it right where the Delta Center is, we would not do this project,” Smith Entertainment Group representative Mike Maughan said. “This is not about a stadium. We don’t want the world’s best stadium if nothing else in downtown changes.”

Those comments came at a public event hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Wednesday. State Senator Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Amanda Covington, chief corporate affairs officer for the Larry H. Miller Company, all also appeared at the event, which served to support two separate sports and entertainment districts within Salt Lake City.

The most notable comments came from Maughan, who shed additional light on Ryan and Ashley Smith’s vision for their downtown district. Under the terms of state bill SB272, passed by the Legislature but not yet signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, Smith can apply to become a partner of Salt Lake City in creating a “revitalization” district of up to 100 acres centered around the current grounds of the Delta Center. Salt Lake City blocks are 10 acres in size.

The bill allows Salt Lake City to raise its sales tax by up to .5% within its city bounds, an amount that the state estimates would raise about $54 million per year over the course of 30 years. Then, a district board — comprised of four members of the Legislature and one member appointed by the Governor — could decide to use those funds on a reconstructed or newly built arena that would host the NBA’s Utah Jazz and a potential NHL team coming to Salt Lake City, along with other improvements in the district.

Fillmore, the state Senator who sponsored the Fairpark district bill that seeks to bring a Major League Baseball stadium to Utah, defended public dollars going to the projects. “Investment in private development, that’s generally accepted when we’re talking about housing or shopping,” Fillmore said. “I don’t understand why sports come into some new category.”

Maughan said the Smith group would invest private “billions” — though declined to give a more exact estimate — on such a district. He argued that such a public-private sports and entertainment district would benefit the city in multiple ways.

“The vision is a very connected downtown with a lot of flow, a lot of walkability, the ability to bring everybody together … What we see is a vision of education, a vision of sports and entertainment, a vision of culture and families wanting to come downtown,” Maughan said. “Too much of what’s happened downtown in the past has been piecemeal. There’s not been enough of this master plan, this cohesive and comprehensive vision of where to go.”

“When you can bring sports as this anchor, and then develop out land that will connect all of downtown and create a thriving core — where we can help with the homeless situation, where we can help with the safety situation, where we can help make downtown a place that families want to continue to come,” he said.

Where the district would be is still to be determined in upcoming months and years to come as the Smith group negotiates with Salt Lake City. Though the bill indicates it must be centered around the current location of the Delta Center, at 300 West and South Temple, it’s not immediately obvious which additional city blocks the district would be able to build on. The owners of The Gateway indicated to Building Salt Lake that the mall was not for sale. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has mentioned Japantown, the area from 200 West to 300 West on 100 South, when discussing the bill.

Interestingly, the omnibus liquor bill passed by the state this year (HB548) references a “designated project area zone” between South Temple and 100 South and West Temple to 400 West, in which Utah’s laws prohibiting bars near community locations will no longer apply. Those three blocks are currently filled with the Delta Center and two-thirds of the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The Smith Entertainment Group executive indicated that they passed up building a sports and entertainment district elsewhere in the state that would “in all logical ways make way more sense” — because of their commitment to Salt Lake City’s vision. “It’s about making sure that the downtown is built to be something we can all be proud of for a long, long time,” Maughan said.

That being said, Maughan declined to say if the Smith group would still proceed with their vision for downtown if Salt Lake City’s government chose not to pass the tax increase. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Maughan said.

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