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November 21, 2014

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Could this be the first major pro sports team to call Las Vegas home?

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An artist’s rendering shows a proposed design for a future Major League Soccer stadium to be located in Symphony Park near the Smith Center. The proposal was announced Wednesday, May 14, 2014, by Findlay Sports and Cordish Companies.

Justin Findlay has the respected last name in Las Vegas.

The Cordish Companies has the track record nationally of building entertainment and sports venues.

Together, they hope to build a 24,000-seat soccer stadium at Symphony Park in downtown Las Vegas for a Major League Soccer franchise to call home.

They announced the estimated $300 million project Wednesday, planning to have their proposal heard May 21 by the Las Vegas City Council. Cordish has been under contract since 2008 with Las Vegas to develop an arena and coordinate bringing a professional franchise to town. It received an extension in January through May 31 for the private-public funded project.

The Findlay Sports and Entertainment group was founded earlier this year with the sole purpose of bringing an MLS expansion team to Las Vegas. Findlay, the group’s managing partner, comes from a long line of accomplished local businessmen — his grandfather, Pete Findlay, and father, Cliff Findlay, have made billions with their car dealerships and have been in town since the 1960s.

“We always hear about pro sports teams (coming to Las Vegas) and venues being built, but nothing materialized,” Justin Findlay said. “I really felt compelled to chase the vision and this dream. I really believe Las Vegas deserves it.”

MLS is expanding from 19 to 24 teams by 2020 — New York, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta have already received new franchises. Findlay said Las Vegas is competing with Austin, Texas; Minneapolis; Sacramento; San Antonio; and San Diego for the last franchise. Those projects are significantly ahead in the planning stages.

“It will be a race to see who can put the best package together,” Findlay said. “A lot of people are vying for the last spot. There are a few cities working on it longer. But like I told the league, it’s one thing to work on it longer, but who is coming up with the best plan?”

If MLS doesn’t grant Las Vegas a team, no stadium will be built, Findlay said. If it is built, the city would own the stadium and lease it to the team, which would be co-owned by the Findlay and Cordish groups. The Findlay group would manage the team.

“We recently met with Justin Findlay and Blake Cordish at the MLS league office in New York and were very impressed with their vision to pursue building a new soccer stadium and acquiring an MLS expansion club for Las Vegas,” MLS Deputy Commissioner and President Mark Abbott said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing discussions as they work to further develop their plans with Mayor Goodman and the city of Las Vegas.”

Justin and Cliff Findlay attended an MLS exhibition game three months ago in Portland, Ore., and had their suspicions about the popularity of soccer confirmed.

The pageantry was second to none — the Timbers Army cheering group stands from start to finish, passionately chanting spirit songs and engaged in every play. There’s not an empty seat. The party starts outside the stadium before the game with the march to the match, which is popular in MLS cities such as Seattle, in which fans parade through the streets leading into the stadium.

Justin Findlay is a lifelong soccer junkie and is active in local youth clubs. Cliff Findlay is one of the UNLV basketball team’s biggest boosters and started Findlay Prep, the Henderson-based national high school basketball powerhouse. Cliff Findlay never experienced soccer until the Portland exhibition, leaving Oregon sold on his son’s plans to duplicate the atmosphere in Las Vegas.

“He is a visionary, my dad,” Justin Findlay said. “He can see, you know, what I can see in what these other cities are doing. This is the time do this. He is fully supporting me. He knows what MLS is looking for.”

Justin Findlay also knows what MLS, whose season runs during the summer months, isn’t looking for — the triple-digit Las Vegas heat. Stadium plans, which are still being designed, will have to provide suitable refuge from the heat, likely coming from a retractable roof or a closed facility.

“The biggest hurdle is the heat. They made it clear they can’t deal with that.” Findlay said. “It is one of a couple of issues we have to figure out. It has to work for the league. It has to work for us. It has to work for the City Council.”

The City Council will vote on whether to add the Findlay group to the existing agreement between Las Vegas and Cordish. If approved, the new partnership would have until Sept. 1 to create a financing plan and Dec. 1 to finalize the development agreement. The 61-acre Symphony Park already includes the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Cordish officials weren’t immediately available to comment; Findlay said it’s too early to know how much public funding Las Vegas would need to contribute. When Cordish received its extension on a 4-3 vote in January, the proposal called for Cordish to contribute $151 million in equity, with the city issuing $187 million in bonds to be paid off by arena revenues. About $50 million was left to finance, but that was for a proposal near $400 million, which appears to be more than the soccer stadium proposal. Findlay said his group would contribute substantially.

“We are not settled on the details. I can tell you it's a better (deal) for the public than most cities,” Findlay said.

Cordish’s attention had long focused on bringing an NBA or NHL team to the area, an effort Mayor Carolyn Goodman and her husband, former Mayor Oscar Goodman, have long championed.

But when MGM Resorts International and AEG broke ground May 1 on a $350 million, 20,000-seat venue behind the Monte Carlo and New York-New York, the downtown project was able to shift gears. Carolyn Goodman is determined to bring professional sports to Las Vegas but doesn't want the venues to compete. Findlay knew of the struggles to build in Symphony Park and believed his project would be a perfect fit — like other MLS cities, downtown Las Vegas is centrally located and easily accessed, and fans can walk to the stadium from multiple points downtown.

Findlay is being advised by Dean Howes, who oversaw the construction of the soccer-specific stadium in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, which is the home to Real Salt Lake of MLS.

“Soccer is about to hit a big spurt,” Findlay said. “Obviously, it already has in other spots of the country. We’re ready to bring it to Las Vegas.”

That’s music to Goodman’s ears. Getting an NBA or NHL team to relocate here could cost upwards of $1 billion, meaning having MLS as the sports piece to downtown is an attractive option.

“That was Oscar’s passion,” Carolyn Goodman said. “There are three parts to any great city. It’s your medical, it’s your cultural, it’s your sports. That’s something he knew."

All that’s missing is sports — something Findlay says he’s determined to change.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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