Now that the Arizona Coyotes have reached an agreement with the Tempe City Council to continue negotiations on a new arena and entertainment district in the Phoenix suburb, their team president and CEO, Xavier A. Gutierrez, says the next challenge is to clear up misconceptions about what is in the works — and how the team plans to pay for it.
“The biggest [hurdle] honestly is to have people understand the project,” Gutierrez told ESPN on Wednesday. “There was a transparency clause that really prohibited us from speaking publicly [before a June 2 hearing]. We’ve been under wraps for so many months, and so now we’re getting people comfortable. We’re saying, ‘We’re going to pay for all of this.’ And we have [been met with] some skepticism about that, but that truly is what we’re proposing.”
Coyotes brass pitched its $1.7 billion project to the Tempe City Council in a marathon eight-hour session that included comments from more than 100 citizens and the inclusion of over 220 written statements before a 5-2 vote in the team’s favor.
The Coyotes are looking for more than just an arena and practice facility to become their permanent home. Their bid involves a 46-acre site — currently used as a landfill — that would also include hotels, apartments, retail stores and other outposts Gutierrez insists would be beneficial to the entire community.
But as Gutierrez well knows, there are doubts about the Coyotes’ ability to financially pull this off without help. The team was served with a termination notice by Gila River Arena in December 2021 in part over $1.3 million in unpaid taxes — which the team settled — and the Coyotes are consistently among the NHL’s lowest revenue generators.
Gutierrez insists they are not looking for a handout in bringing the Tempe vision to life.
“It’s going to be privately financed,” he said. “We’ll be putting up the capital. We’d actually be buying the land. And then we have made a request to have the city issue bonds whose sole collateral would only be the land and the real estate, so the taxpayers would never be at risk. We would be very excited about creating the first privately financed entertainment district in the history of Arizona.”
Getting this project off the ground would, most pressingly, give the Coyotes a long-term home. The Coyotes’ lease at Gila River Arena expires June 30, and for the next three seasons, they will be playing in a 5,000-seat venue still under construction at Arizona State.
Even a yes from the city council doesn’t mean the Coyotes are close to breaking ground. There are months of negotiations ahead between the city and developers, plus community meetings and public forums.
“We have respected this process with the city of Tempe and what they need to feel comfortable,” Gutierrez said. “We have told them we’d love a decision in the fall. We would like to get going in terms of remediating this land and building that first phase, which would include our new arena, practice facility and a couple of the other uses. We’re not in control of that, and we’re going to work with the city to create a really meaningful partnership.”
There are also questions about noise, traffic and how incoming properties would affect local businesses. The Coyotes are taking a grassroots approach to assuaging some of those concerns.
“It’s on us to make sure that we’re getting out there and we’re having those conversations, having that education level, saying, ‘Hey, this is how we’re addressing issues,'” Gutierrez said.
That dialogue will take place while the Coyotes play at Arizona State. Gutierrez said construction is on track to be finished in September or October.
The Coyotes had to invest around $30 million to finish an NHL-mandated annex providing the required locker-room and medical facilities not normally available at college venues. Gutierrez said the annex won’t be completed when the NHL opens its 2022-23 season in October, but the Coyotes are planning to host games at some point that month.
Gutierrez declined to comment specifically on ticket sales for Coyotes games at Arizona State but said they are going “incredibly well” and promised details shortly.
Whatever the Coyotes have up their sleeve, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is firmly behind them. Bettman said previously that, if the Tempe project is approved, he would guarantee the Coyotes would not be allowed to move for 30 years and that the arena would host an All-Star Game and the NHL draft.
In a media availability Wednesday, Bettman reiterated it’s not “unprecedented” for NHL clubs to temporarily play in small venues if there is a bigger picture in mind.
“You do what you have to do if you believe in a market long term,” Bettman said. “Obviously there’s some work to be done before we can get a shovel in the ground [in Tempe]. But more of the reports I get, [it sounds like] everybody’s doing what they need to be doing as efficiently as possible.”