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What’s next for Coyotes in search for new arena?

LISTEN: Craig Morgan, ArizonaSports.com writer

GLENDALE, Ariz.– The Coyotes’ search for a new home in the Valley took an unexpected twist late Friday when Arizona State University abruptly pulled out of potential deal in which the Coyotes hoped to build a 16,000-plus seat arena and an adjacent, 4,000-seat arena where ASU’s Division I hockey program would have played its games at the northwest corner of McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway on Karsten Golf Course.

Maybe the Coyotes could have framed the deal better when it was announced by de-emphasizing ASU’s involvement with a sensitive Arizona State Legislature watching every penny spent, but the death of this deal had little if anything to do with the Coyotes. It was a game of politics where ASU President Michael Crow had to choose his battle, Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, told Arizona Sports on Monday in an opinion echoed by multiple other sources.

“They just had a very complex legislative slate this year where they are trying to do some creative things with the governor,” Worsley said. “They’re considering up to a billion dollars of bonding to build some new research buildings and grow, really all of three state universities, but in particular ASU’s engineering prowess.

“That is core to the ASU business model and this Coyotes deal, although it started sooner, I think it was probably too many things crossing over and confusing people.”

Elevating its engineering status could mean hundreds of millions in money for ASU in the form of grants and similar funding. As an example, Worsley cited the NASA grant announced earlier this month where ASU will lead its first major, multimillion-dollar space mission to send an unmanned spacecraft to the asteroid named 16 Psyche.

What frustrated Worsley and others was the insistence by some in the Legislature on lumping those engineering efforts in with the Coyotes deal.

“They weren’t linked and didn’t need to be linked, but for a less sophisticated person looking at it, they might seem to be linked,” Worsley said. “The billion dollar bond is linked to this TPT (transaction privilege tax) or sales tax for all university system purchases and that’s about $36 million a year. That $36 million becomes a payment through mechanisms they want to use to borrow a billion to pay off the bonds.

“The Coyotes deal was going to split, 50-50, the TPT or sales tax generated from Coyotes facilities. It has nothing to do with ASU’s facilities and operations. One is Coyotes operations; the other is university operations. They were only linked in the imagination of people, but because ASU’s name was associated with both it seemed like they were getting some kind of sales tax relief from the state. I’m sure Michael Crow felt like they had to clarify one issue; not both.”

The death of an ASU deal and the loss of a location that the Coyotes considered optimal was met with a mixture of dismay and cynicism by media and Coyotes fans, but the league took the news in stride.

“It’s certainly unfortunate that events played out the way they did, but the club has other options and is committed to remaining in the Valley,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email.

Worsley said he is aware of “four or five options” the Coyotes have, aside from remaining at Gila River Arena in Glendale, where the city confirmed this month that the Coyotes had extended their lease through the 2017-18 season. Arizona Sports reported in November that private developers, in cooperation with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, are exploring the idea of building a 20,000-seat multi-purpose event center south of the Scottsdale Pavilions and west of Loop 101 that they say could potentially house the Arizona Coyotes, but the Coyotes are focused on other sites at present.

Arizona Sports previously reported an interest in a site near the Chicago Cubs’ spring training facility at Riverview Park in Mesa, less than two miles from the proposed ASU site. That is likely the top choice. The Coyotes have also explored building on tribal land along the Loop 101 corridor, and the team and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton remain interested in a downtown location, although that would require cooperation from Suns owner Robert Sarver.

Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said the team has already renewed talks with other potential sites that were put on the backburner when the team was solely focused on the ASU location.

“When we made the decision to go with the Tempe site in the fall, it was just that, a decision made by the Coyotes,” LeBlanc said. “Admittedly, we felt it was the best site and best path, but it isn’t the only path. We are re-engaging with other potential sites, and that process began in earnest [Friday] evening.”

In order to get that ball rolling, Worsley began reworking the legislation (SB174) which he introduced recently.

“Everything was built in this legislation around the stadium district which is unique to ASU,” he said. “It’s now being reworked so it can work for any location. It would work the same way but we would create an entertainment district that would not be a sub-part of the stadium district.”

Worsley would still need the support of other lawmakers, and he said it is too early to gauge whether he will have that support. He expects the reworked legislation to make it out of committee on Monday and then he’ll start working to acquire the necessary votes on the floor.

“I’m not a hockey fan but I’m a business guy and I want to save any business of this magnitude from leaving and impacting thousands of jobs,” Worsley, who founded SkyMall, said. “We would go out of our way in the Legislature to see what we could do if there was a company considering leaving so it’s appropriate to say, ‘what can we do to help?’

“We’re not going to build them a stadium the way it used to be done, but given the fact that the Coyotes appear to be willing to do more, it’s worth helping.”

With the ASU deal dead, ASU hockey still needs a suitable, long-term home as it eyes conference alignment and top-notch recruits. A source said the school will begin weighing a multitude of other options now, but the Coyotes are still open to ASU’s hockey program joining them in a new facility.

“The university has been a good partner of the Coyotes for the last couple of years, working together in particular with their hockey program,” LeBlanc said. “We see no reason as to why that would change.

“One thing is certain: when we ultimately finalize a plan for a new home in the Valley, it will be infinitely closer to campus than our current location where their hockey program currently plays a handful of games per season. It will hopefully be a great option for the university to explore once that occurs, and we will certainly keep them fully abreast of our developments as we move forward.”

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