The Arizona Coyotes may be pitching a new hockey arena, but on Thursday they hit a home run.
Thursday’s Tempe City Council special meeting to discuss the club’s proposal for a sports and entertainment district had a little bit of everything. Representatives from both the Coyotes and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport sparred over the development’s proximity to the airport and what that would mean for flight traffic safety and noise levels. Residents, fans, and current and former players sounded off on what they thought the development would mean to the area. Finally, city council members followed up with questions and comments of their own regarding the proposal.
Following the eight-hour meeting, the council voted 5-2 in favor of opening negotiations with the team, signaling the start of a months-long process that the Coyotes and their fans hope will result in a sparkling new arena. Though significant hurdles remain, the club can finally celebrate a small win in its year-long quest to re-establish its roots in The Valley.
Needless to say, optimism is abound about hockey’s future in the desert.
Coyotes, Sky Harbor Airport Clash Over Noise Concerns
Of all the obstacles raised during Thursday’s meeting — and there were many — the biggest concern raised by Sky Harbor officials centered around the proposed residential units included in the plan, and how any new development would conflict with an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) signed between Tempe and Phoenix 30 years ago. Chad Makovsky, the director of aviation services at Sky Harbor Airport, claimed the proposal’s 1600 residential units, which were requested to be part of the RFP by Tempe, are incompatible with the land use, and would reduce the effectiveness of noise abatement corridors that have previously been put into place.
Makovsky argued the units would be approximately 9800 feet away from one of the airport’s departure runways, and the area’s high summertime temps would exacerbate noise by requiring aircraft to use more thrust.
“My job has always been to continue to advocate for Sky Harbor,” Makovsky said at the meeting. “There are elements of Tempe’s RFP that was issued that, if left unresolved, could result in significant impacts in Sky Harbor’s ability to continue to grow.”
Not so fast, said Nick Wood, a longtime Valley land-use attorney representing the Coyotes.
He immediately fired back, highlighting that the City of Phoenix has consistently approved residential projects in the same general vicinity — and higher in stature — than anything proposed in the Tempe RFP. He referenced a 2016 proposal for a condo building that he himself worked on, and noted neither the city nor the airport raised concerns at that time.
In fact, Wood called attention to a rendering of potential expansion, and suggested Phoenix officials are more interested in terminating the IGA to expand the airport and re-route said air traffic, as opposed to the noise concerns previously raised. He noted the team has negotiated in good faith with the city, airport officials, and the FAA, and fired back on assertions that either he or the club have been anything less than fully transparent.
He said the Coyotes have made concessions over building and crane heights, avigation (aviation) easements, tenant disclosures, drone usage, and even restriction of certain types of events.They will also engage a qualified biologist to help identify and mitigate any wildlife hazards that could arise as a result of the new development.
“I take issue with someone saying that I’m telling stories,” Wood said. “You’ve all known me a long time. I’ve never, ever, ever come before you and told you something that wasn’t true.”
Tempe mayor Corey Woods, who voted in favor of opening negotiations with the team, also said he appreciated the Coyotes’ willingness to be open about their financial status with the city, especially after negative headlines surfaced this past season between the club and the city of Glendale. Team president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez indicated Arizona would open its books and be as transparent as possible, stating that a number of major financial institutions, including Bank of America, Citibank, PNC Bank, and Fifth Third Bank are prepared to financially back the initiative.
Arizona’s lease at Gila River Arena expires on June 30, and the club will play its games for the next 3-4 seasons at Arizona State University’s new multi-use arena, which is set to open this fall.
Fans, Players, and Icons All Voice Support for Proposal
During the lengthy public forum, in which nearly 100 people spoke and another 228 written comments were submitted, both those supporting and opposing the project had the opportunity to be heard. Concerns from the public primarily related to affordable housing, traffic, tax breaks, and the aforementioned noise impacts — all of which were addressed by the team in its response.
Most notably speaking out in favor of the project, however, included former Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano, former Coyotes captain and current Chief Hockey Development Officer Shane Doan, and Coyotes Director of External Engagement, Youth & Women’s Hockey Lyndsey Fry. Current players Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, and Christian Fischer also took the podium, with Keller directly addressing the council.
“I speak for myself, my family, my teammates when we say we love living here and being a part of this community,” Keller said. “Arizona’s important to the NHL, and we want to stay here, so we hope you vote yes.”
Doan, meanwhile, reflected on the area’s growth since he first arrived in Arizona, and how revolutionary the development would be if approved in the future.
“If you give us the opportunity to have a stadium, it’s an incredible competitive advantage for us,” Doan said. “It would create the staple franchise in the league that I’ve always dreamed we can be.”
Fry highlighted just how much the sport of hockey has grown in The Valley since her playing days, when she had to commute to Colorado in order to compete at the level needed to become a future Olympian. Since that time, she has been one of the most impactful voices regarding hockey in Arizona, and indicated just how much this deal could further elevate the sport in the region.
“I’ve worked to grow hockey in Arizona for the Coyotes,” she said. “When I started playing ice hockey back in 1998, the Coyotes had just come to town a few years prior, and their arrival served as a catalyst for hockey in The Valley.”
Thursday night’s meeting was an impressive display of support for hockey in the desert — though that comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the team in depth recently — and clearly resonated with the council members, who voted to advance into negotiations with the club.
“I think that what we heard, more than anything, was just the wonderful support we have in this community for everything that we do,” Gutierrez said. “As you know, we focus on impact, we focus on inclusion, we focus on innovation, and you heard that resonate today, and clearly it was not only fans as us as a hockey team, but us as an organization, and we’re really humbled and grateful about that.”
Small Victory, But Next Steps Loom Large
The Coyotes earned the Tempe council’s vote, which notably included support from mayor Woods and vice mayor Randy Keating, but the road ahead is a long one, to say the least. Phoenix officials have threatened legal action against Tempe over the aforementioned IGA, and previous proposals in the area have stalled for this very reason. (From: “Tempe memo gives Coyotes’ proposal low marks for ‘financial strength’ and Phoenix threatens suit,” azcentral.com, June 1, 2022)
The eight-hour meeting was a small glimpse into what the upcoming months have in store for the team, the town, its residents, and the surrounding area, but the Coyotes are poised to take the next step in establishing permanent roots in the desert.
“We’re going to regroup internally, but as [Shane Doan] mentioned, this is now an opportunity for us to get out into the community, and to really hear what their interests are, and to compliment the vision that we have put into our proposal to really meet the best uses, and the best vision, that Tempe deserves,” Gutierrez said. “We’re excited about that.”
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.