Utah Legislature approves ‘milestone’ bill creating Fairpark district, MLB stadium framework

Feb 28, 2024, 11:41 AM | Updated: Mar 1, 2024, 12:13 pm

A conceptional rendering of a proposed Major League Baseball stadium, located within the Power Dist...

A conceptional rendering of a proposed Major League Baseball stadium, located within the Power District in Salt Lake City. A bill setting up state funds for a possible stadium passed the Utah Legislature Wednesday. A conceptional rendering of a proposed Major League Baseball stadium, located within the Power District in Salt Lake City. A bill setting up state funds for a possible stadium passed the Utah Legislature Wednesday. (Larry H. Miller Company)

(Larry H. Miller Company)

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, appeared to fight back tears as it became her turn to cast her vote on HB562 on the Senate floor Wednesday.

The bill sets up a new Utah Fairpark Area Investment and Restoration District that will help oversee major redevelopment planned for the Fairpark neighborhood and forthcoming Power District in Salt Lake City. It also sets up the framework for state funding of a possible Major League Baseball stadium, in a move that ramps up the state’s bid for an expansion team.

“This is going to change completely my community and many lives,” she said, before voting in favor of the measure.

Escamilla, along with many of her colleagues, believe it’s a home run. The Utah Senate voted 25-4 on Wednesday to approve second substitute HB562, less than 24 hours after the House of Representatives voted 51-21 to advance the bill to the Senate. The bill now heads to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for final approval.

It follows a resolution that the Legislature passed last month, supporting Utah’s efforts to bring in MLB.

What the bill does

HB562 sets up a few things. Once signed, it would create a new investment district this year, including a board that oversees it. The area is slated for major redevelopment with the creation of the Power District, which was boosted earlier this month by the Larry H. Miller Company’s announcement that it will invest at least $3.5 billion in the area.

Both votes took place after Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, the bill’s sponsor, unveiled final tweaks to the measure, giving a member of the Westside Coalition a seat on a board overseeing the district. The governor will also appoint two members to the board, as will the Fairpark Authority Board and Utah leaders.

However, most of the interest in the bill has been tied to baseball. Salt Lake City is one of multiple cities vying to bring in an MLB expansion team; ESPN reported last week that it appears Utah’s capital and Nashville, Tennessee, are currently at the top of the expansion leaderboard.

The bill would provide up to $900 million in state funds toward a possible MLB stadium, should Utah land an MLB team by mid-2032. A prospective MLB owner, most likely the Miller Company, would cover the rest of the estimated $1.8 billion project, oversee construction and upkeep, and pay the state a $150,000 per month lease to play in the stadium that the state would own.

A conceptual rendering of a Jordan River “riverwalk” by a stadium in the Salt Lake City Power District. (Photo: Larry H. Miller Company)

This part of the bill generated most of the debate on the Senate floor Wednesday. Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, said he doesn’t like the “optics of cutting taxes” for a wealthy business while homelessness, child funding, affordable housing and other key issues remain underfunded.

Others have voiced their concerns about the value that a stadium could bring since the bill was introduced. Sports economic experts have produced several studies that show stadiums don’t create much of an economic impact on a community.

But Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, the bill’s Senate sponsor, argues that HB562 isn’t much of a baseball bill. It looks at completely revamping Salt Lake City’s Fairpark neighborhood and west side.

He asserts state funds directed toward the district would essentially be covered by any redevelopment, capturing new sales tax and the increments of property values in an area. The area, he said, doesn’t produce much of either right now since there are many abandoned businesses or state entities in the area. On top of that, the state could generate more from the income tax coming out of any MLB player’s salary, which could go toward repaying the cost of the stadium and district if the state chooses.

The only major statewide tax is a 1.5% increase in car rental taxes that would be triggered if Utah lands an MLB team; however, Fillmore said in-state residents are exempt from this tax as long as they fill out a form proving their residency. Wilcox altered the bill this week, removing a 1.5% statewide increase to the transient room tax that would go toward the project after negative feedback from the hotel industry and lawmakers.

The bill also guarantees that “Utah” will be included in a future team’s name.

One final vote

It appeared that Utah senators were slightly more welcoming of HB562 than a similar bill setting up a new arena for the Utah Jazz and a possible National Hockey League team in downtown Salt Lake City — even if the body approved both.

Fillmore said HB562 focuses on “meaningful” upgrades to three big state assets: the Utah State Fairpark, the Jordan River and Salt Lake City’s west side, three pieces he believes have been “historically neglected” over time. He noted it only builds on what the Miller Company pledged to invest in the area.

“The economic, social and cultural impact of this investment cannot be overstated,” he said. “As a state and as a capital city, we’ve been looking at ways that we can invest, restore and revitalize these areas.”

Escamilla added that the bill could serve as a “catalyst” for Salt Lake City’s west side communities, something that has never really happened in the area’s history.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who spoke in favor of the bill when it went through a committee hearing last week, celebrated the bill’s passage. She called it a “major milestone” toward the city’s MLB efforts, in a social media post Wednesday.

“Regardless, what the Millers are going to build will transform the Fairpark and Power District on our City’s Westside,” she wrote. “I’m grateful for our dedicated partners with the (Larry H. Miller Company) and proud of our city’s key seat at the table for the work ahead.”

Cox has until March 21 to sign or veto any bills from this year’s session.

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Utah Legislature approves ‘milestone’ bill creating Fairpark district, MLB stadium framework