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Group: Put Arena on Ballot

By Dan McKay
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          A group pushing for a $400 million Downtown event center and hotel wants the city to get off the dime and put a tax proposal to fund the project on the ballot sooner rather than later.
        It appears they have an uphill fight.
        Some political and business leaders are cautious. They say rushing ahead could be a case of too much, too soon for voters and could jeopardize a transit tax already on an October city ballot that will include the mayor's race and five council seats.
        Others want more information about operating costs once the project is built.
        It's not even clear how the city or its development team will go about obtaining the Downtown site after state lawmakers failed to fund the land acquisition.
        Undeterred, Steve Wedeen is leading a group of marketing, advertising and other professionals pushing for a project they say would boost tourism and lure business to the Convention Center.
        "The impact is phenomenal," Wedeen said in a recent interview. "This is really an economic-stimulus package that invests in a smart, sound industry."
        Wedeen is on the board of the nonprofit Downtown Action Team and a principal in Vaughn Wedeen Creative Inc., a design and advertising firm. Several city councilors are ambivalent.
        "It's not been on anybody's front burner," Council President Isaac Benton said. "We need to start looking at what the options are for getting site control."
        Councilor Ken Sanchez said the transit tax is the immediate priority, and he broached the idea of postponing the event center measure until 2011.
        "In these economic times," Sanchez said, "it would be difficult for people to take the burden of having to subsidize two taxes."
        Business leaders also want more analysis of whether the project would generate adequate operating revenue and question projected attendance figures for minor league sports teams that would play in the center.
        The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce wants a more detailed financial analysis before announcing whether it would support such a project.
        The chamber is also waiting for the city to release a specific ballot question outlining what "the taxpayers will be asked to do," said president and CEO Terri Cole.
        Construction deals
        Plans for a new event center have been a long time in the making. The most recent incarnation was launched through a request for proposals in 2006. A privately financed effort had fallen through previously.
        The city selected a group led by Garfield Traub and Hunt Development. They settled on plans for a 10,000- to 11,000-seat event center just north of Central Avenue at the railroad tracks. A 550-room "headquarters" hotel would sit next to the Convention Center, and there would be related improvements such as parking garages.
        A sales-tax increase of one-eighth of a cent — it would add 12.5 cents to a $100 purchase — would help finance the project.
        The city, the development team and others launched a viability assessment that was largely favorable. However, much of the evaluation came before or as the national economy was tightening last year.
        That hasn't deterred supporters, who say the lean market has driven down the cost of materials and labor. They argue the city might be able to build the project at a discount and be positioned to draw convention business and other activity as the economy rebounds.
        Benton doesn't discount that argument.
        "This could be the right time to build it," he said.
        Councilor Debbie O'Malley said the city needs to focus on securing the site. The planned location is critical because it's next to the existing Convention Center and mass transit, such as the Rail Runner.
        "I hope that we can do it sooner rather than later," she said. "It's all about location, and that's the site that makes sense."
        Benton said voters should debate the transit tax before the city asks them to consider a tax increase for the event center. That could postpone the event-center debate until after October.
        "I think it's too much for people to digest at the same time," he said.
        Revenue projections
        One issue is a "pro forma operating statement" for the arena prepared by a company that would be part of the management team. It estimates attendance of about 1,500 per game for minor league basketball and 4,000 a game for minor league hockey.
        Cole said those would be substantial increases over what those teams now draw. The Thunderbirds basketball team plays at Tingley Coliseum, and the Scorpions hockey team at a venue in Rio Rancho.
        "We're interested in a more comprehensive pro forma that helps us understand how these bold assumptions will be successfully realized," Cole said.
        But Sanchez said that when the debate does come up again, he believes the projections for higher attendance will pan out.
        "They were conservative in their projections," he said. "Being centralized with the bus system and parking, I think attendance would do fine."

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