Friday, July 8, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Weeks before an influential state infrastructure panel is supposed to finish vetting plans for a 65,000-seat domed football stadium, stakeholders are still grappling with a fundamental aspect of the project.
Where exactly would the stadium be located?
The 11-member Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee should move closer to an answer on Monday, when backers of the stadium project are expected to provide an update on potential sites.
Officials need to get a firm grasp on where the stadium might be located in order to determine various costs, such as those related to land and road improvements. Those considerations will almost certainly push the total cost of the stadium project, which could bring the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas, beyond its commonly cited $1.4 billion price tag.
Taking other location-specific factors into account also should allow for a more thorough debate about the public’s share of the cost. The stadium’s private backers have proposed that $750 million come from public funds, likely room taxes, but an alternative plan introduced by the committee chairman called for $550 million in public money.
In the meantime, location options abound.
The initially discussed stadium site was Trop-42 — shorthand for a 42-acre plot owned by UNLV on Tropicana Avenue near Koval Lane. That location now appears unlikely because of concerns about its proximity to McCarran International Airport, although stadium backers and a UNLV official both insist that site is still an option.
Other possible locations for the stadium include, but are not limited to: a different spot at UNLV near the Thomas & Mack Center, multiple sites on or near the Strip and the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas.
The Strip area presents some interesting possibilities for the stadium.
Among the options are the site of the former Riviera hotel and MGM Resorts International’s festival grounds across from SLS Las Vegas, where the Rock in Rio music festival was held in 2015. Another possibility that emerged lately is a huge site that Station Casinos owns at Tropicana just west of Interstate 15.
“Everybody has land, everybody has a site, and we’re vetting all of those sites as we speak,” said Las Vegas Sands Corp. executive Andy Abboud, whose company is one of the private entities backing the stadium project. “From Cashman Field, to Rock in Rio, to the Riviera, to Trop-42, everything is on the table, and all of the sites are being vetted — vetted in terms of traffic, vetted in terms of site improvements and vetted in terms of … where people would actually like to see the stadium located.”
A deal for the Strip festival grounds would present a particularly significant scenario for the stadium, as it would team up Sands and MGM Resorts — two big casino rivals that have not always seen eye-to-eye on the project.
Just after the stadium was proposed, MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren said forcefully that he would not support diverting any hotel room taxes away from the planned expansion and renovation of the Las Vegas Convention Center, which the infrastructure committee is also vetting. Both the stadium and the convention center projects are vying for room tax funds.
The two companies also were connected to dueling polls released just before the infrastructure committee’s meeting in March. One poll funded by MGM Resorts showed strong support among Nevadans for funding the convention center with room taxes; the other, conducted on behalf of Sands, showed strong support for the stadium and bringing the NFL to Las Vegas.
Yet the infrastructure committee — which has members from both Sands and MGM Resorts — has continued to work through the stadium and convention center plans. It’s likely that the group could make recommendations for funding both of them.
MGM Resorts President Bill Hornbuckle, a member of the committee, said at the group’s last meeting that his company was willing to discuss the festival site as a potential option for housing the stadium. Talks have advanced since then, according to a statement from Hornbuckle emailed to Las Vegas Sun.
"MGM Resorts has met with the stadium group on two occasions and had what we feel are productive discussions. Our company is supportive of their efforts and has offered to participate in the partnership by making available a section of our Strip-front property north of Circus Circus,” Hornbuckle said in the statement. “We've offered to carry that investment as an equity stake in the stadium at fair market value to be determined at a future date.”
Offering the festival grounds land as an equity stake could theoretically address one of the major hurdles with any potential stadium site on the Strip: the cost of land there.
The entire festival grounds site spans nearly 50 acres, according to an MGM Resorts spokesman, and it includes 26 acres at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard that the company’s predecessor, MGM Mirage, bought for $444 million in 2007.
Cost also is an issue for the Riviera site, which the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority bought for more than $182 million in 2015. The authority has already imploded and torn down much of the Riviera structures as it prepares to use the site for outdoor exhibit space — and, eventually, its planned expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Authority head Rossi Ralenkotter has told the infrastructure committee that it’s possible both the convention center and the stadium could fit on the Riviera site, but more land acquisition would be necessary. Because of the cost and space challenges associated with pulling that off, infrastructure committee Chairman Steve Hill said he thought the Riviera site was unlikely to be the stadium’s ultimate location.
The cost issue may factor differently when considering the festival grounds and Riviera sites for the stadium. Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, drew a distinction between actually acquiring land and an owner contributing land as equity — as Hornbuckle suggested for the festival grounds.
“There’s a difference, I think, in how everybody involved would look at it, based on whether they would actually have to cut a check to buy the land, or whether someone would say, ‘OK, I’ll contribute the land as X-percentage of the overall project,’” Hill said.
Abboud confirmed that stadium backers also were considering another location just off the Strip: some 100 acres owned by Station Casinos on Tropicana near I-15. That site includes the Wild Wild West casino as well as other land, and it’s where Station once planned to build a $10 billion resort complex called Viva that would have rivaled MGM Resorts’ massive CityCenter development on the Strip.
Richard Haskins, president of Station parent Red Rock Resorts Inc., said in an emailed statement that his company was open to a deal that would put the stadium on the Wild Wild West site.
“We are always considering alternatives with respect to the potential use and/or development of our 100 acres of property located adjacent to the Strip, which we believe is one of the premier undeveloped sites in Las Vegas,” Haskins said. “As such, we would welcome a discussion with the appropriate parties regarding the possible sale of a portion of that property for purposes of developing a stadium.”
Putting the stadium on or near the Strip would make it close to the bulk of the valley’s tourists, but farther away from UNLV.
That could complicate one of the original arguments in favor of building the stadium: getting the UNLV football team into a newer campus facility. The team plays in Sam Boyd Stadium in the southeast valley, and the university longs to bring it closer to home base.
“Campuses like ours want to be able to have a game day experience where people come back to the campus and can walk to the stadium,” said Gerry Bomotti, UNLV’s senior vice president of finance and business. “That’s the ideal for us, but I think the president has certainly indicated that if a stadium isn’t built on our property, we still want to look at playing there.”
If airport-related issues preclude the stadium from being built at the 42 acres on Tropicana, UNLV has another option, according to Bomotti. He said the facility could potentially be built on land just south of the Thomas & Mack Center that’s used for parking. Officials have considered that area for a possible stadium before.
Abboud said the spot near Thomas & Mack also was under consideration as stadium backers worked toward nailing down “either a preferred site or a very short list.”
“Regardless of location, UNLV has to be a part of the stadium project. It is a public stadium,” Abboud said. “Yes, it’s about the Raiders, but this started out as a UNLV project that had the opportunity to attract the Raiders, that then had the opportunity to attract private investment.”
UNLV President Len Jessup, an infrastructure committee member, said previously that the university could use Ttrop-42 for other purposes if a stadium were built elsewhere. That may be inevitable due to a letter from Southwest Airlines sent recently to Steve Sisolak, chairman of the Clark County Commission and another member of the committee.
The letter from two Southwest executives, dated June 29, said the airline was “extremely concerned” about the proposal to build the stadium at the Tropicana site, which is less than a half-mile from the end of two major runways at McCarran airport. The letter said an open or domed stadium that close would restrict operations and “erode safety, security, and capacity” at the airport.
Southwest’s concerns included potential “video boards and signage, light displays, fireworks, helicopters, and drones” at the stadium, which the letter said would also “preclude ‘Next Gen’ instrument arrival procedures” that are being developed. And with much of Southwest’s customers arriving at McCarran by way of Tropicana Avenue, the letter said the airline “must oppose this site due to vehicle gridlock alone.”
The letter cast serious doubt on the possibility that the stadium would be built at UNLV’s 42 acres on Tropicana.
“I’m only one vote out of 11 on this committee, but it would be virtually impossible for me to support the Trop-42 site, unless some other information came up that they were to retract the letter (or) they were to say it was a miscalculation, it was a mistake, we didn’t mean to do that,” Sisolak said.
Similarly, Hill said the 42 acres were likely not completely off the table, but that Southwest’s letter made it a “much less likely” scenario. He said the focus for a UNLV stadium site seemed to have shifted toward the location near Thomas & Mack.
But UNLV’s Bomotti said Trop-42 should still be considered, pending word back from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is reviewing the site. If the FAA determines that a stadium there would negatively impact the airport, UNLV would “recognize that that’s not feasible to do,” Bomotti said.
Abboud also said the location remained an option.
“The letter from Southwest was duly noted, but we think a lot of the concerns they raised at that site are issues that can be mitigated,” he said. “There are no plans for fireworks or drones hovering above the stadium. I think we still believe that some of those issues can be resolved.”
Ultimately, whether the stadium will be built hinges on much more than its specific location.
For one thing, Sands, the Raiders and Majestic Realty Co. — the other private partner — did not respond well to the alternative funding plan that Hill introduced. Debate about that, and what exactly the public will get out of the stadium, should continue as the infrastructure committee works to finalize its recommendations by the end of this month.
Even if those and other issues are resolved, backers would still have to win over state legislators, who would likely need to consider the stadium project in a special session this year. And if the Raiders really were to relocate to Las Vegas, 24 of 32 NFL team owners would need to approve the move.
Still, the most immediate challenge for the stadium project is to work its way through the infrastructure committee.
Hill said the committee’s work with the stadium had not been unlike the state’s conversations with Tesla Motors and Faraday Future, which received billions of dollars in tax packages to build facilities in Nevada. The difference here, in Hill’s view, is that more of the discussion is playing out in public.
“This process doesn’t surprise me. I think it’s natural, it’s healthy, and as I said at the end of the last meeting, really, we’re not that far apart,” he said. “Hopefully, we can find a solution that does work for both the Raiders and the developers and Las Vegas.”
The infrastructure committee’s meeting is scheduled to get underway at 8 a.m. Monday at UNLV’s Stan Fulton Building. The committee is set to meet again on July 28.