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Suns, City of Phoenix clash with Goldwater Institute in court

Photo: Talking Stick Resort Arena/Facebook

PHOENIX — Deliberations related to the Phoenix Suns’ desire for a $450 million renovation to their arena began Tuesday morning at Maricopa County Superior Court over a dispute about documents not made public.

A real estate developer, with the help of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative watchdog group, previously sued the city of Phoenix for not sharing details about the proposed changes and what they believe should be public information.

Jon Riches, Goldwater’s Director of National Litigation and General Counsel, called Talking Stick Resort Arena “a government asset.”

And even though the Suns operate it, they have to understand that when you’re dealing with a public asset that involves the expenditure of public funds, a lot of the information involved there has to be open to the public,” he said.

The subject of much debate is about the 26-year-old arena’s future. Past discussion has included building an arena in a new location or having the Suns and Arizona Coyotes share a facility. The NBA team then shifted its focus on renovation.

Jim Pitman, a member of Suns Legacy Partners, L.L.C., and the Suns’ Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, said the team had engineering and design planning firm HOK conduct a feasibility report of Talking Stick Resort Arena, a report that Pitman says was paid 100 percent by the Suns.

The two sides signed a non-disclosure agreement on June 29, 2016, Pittman said in court Tuesday, with the purpose to “protect the information that the Suns were providing to HOK, as much of it was confidential and related to our private entity.”

The Goldwater Institute argued that just because the Suns and HOK deemed the information confidential doesn’t mean that it is. Talking Stick Resort Arena, where the Suns have played since 1992, is owned by the City of Phoenix. The Goldwater Institute believes it is a public asset which should provide public records.

Pitman said the feasibility report contained ticket pricing strategy, revenue analysis as it relates to sponsorships, future marketing ideas that would be “new to our area,” cost estimates for the future renovation and game receipts that show ticket sales and revenue from the past.

Pitman added that the report has innovative concepts that aren’t on the market yet. If they were to be made public, Pitman argued, then Phoenix and the Suns would be losing out on gaining the most from ideas they discovered,

The report can only be accessed by a “very limited number” of people, Pitman said, and is kept in locked offices at night.

With the study showing estimates of how much the project is going to cost — in essence, what the Suns are willing to pay —  Jeremy Legg, the special project manager for Phoenix, said that if future bidders for the construction contract were able to see what the Suns and the city are believed to be able to pay for certain items of the project, both parties would not get the best possible offers.

During questioning, the Goldwater Institute argued that the Suns and Phoenix have no evidence that those ideas are industry secrets and that other arena’s would employ them as well.

After coming back from break, however, Goldwater’s representatives said that anything in the report dealing with public safety — such as entrances and exits — could remain private. Pitman said the police department has told him “all major arenas are considered soft targets,” for a terror attack.

“The public has an interest in how its asset is managed, maintained, how much money is going to be spent on it and for what purposes,” Riches said. “There are certain things that might have public safety implications that simply aren’t important for those purposes.”

Judge Christopher T. Whitten said that he would give both sides a written order that explains “where I’m going.”

“If the records are disclosed, then we will have them,” Riches said. “And if they’re not, then will assess the judge’s order and decide what the next steps are.”

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