Guest Commentary

Penich-Thacker: Residents should reject Coyotes-backed development to protect community


Tempe residents opposing a taxpayer-funded sports arena held a press conference March 20 to respond to a lawsuit filed against them by the owner of Bluebird Development, the entity asking to build the arena and “entertainment district.”

The proposed development, if approved, would be paid for in part by more than $500 million in property tax breaks over 30 years, plus city tax revenue sharing agreements that gift most of the multiple taxes to the developer instead of the city, and authorization for Bluebird Development owner Alex Meruelo to create and impose new sales and property taxes in the city of Tempe.

In the lawsuit, Bluebird Development orders Tempe residents opposed to the entertainment district to “cease and desist” voicing their opposition to the proposal and especially their concerns about Meruelo saying the residents are “defaming” the billionaire casino and Arizona Coyotes owner by labeling him “corrupt” for his long history of financial scandals, such as his non-payments to the city of Glendale, the city of Tucson and multiple lawsuits linked to tax evasion and toxic business practices in California and Nevada.

But according to attorneys for the Tempe residents, whose volunteer group is called Tempe 1st, the lawsuit is baseless and nothing more than a futile attempt to intimidate and silence residents who oppose the project.

Bluebird Development and billionaire owner Meruelo’s actions not only confirm residents’ well-researched belief that he is untrustworthy and hostile to their community values but also give voters a preview into the anti-democratic culture residents can expect if this deal passes.

Tempe deserves a lot better than having our economic future tied to a hostile developer who can’t handle valid criticism of his past, his practices, his character, or the details of a bad deal that will cost taxpayers for decades.

Other members of the resident coalition opposing the proposal detailed a long list of reasons they are urging Tempe voters to reject the entertainment district:

• Harm to community and residents

“We cannot let these developers grab more land while the city ignores the demands from the community like having more affordable housing, funding for public schools, support for small businesses, and more elder care and child care,” said May Tiwamangkala of the Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders for Equity, a group based in Tempe.

• Bad business practices

“As a local business owner for 50 years, I will tell you that all jobs are not equal. Go to any restaurant, store or office and you’ll see a “help wanted” sign. Employers in the Valley are having a terrible time finding enough workers to fill the jobs that currently exist. We have a worker shortage and the imaginary job numbers the developer is promising mean nothing to a community that does not want more low-paying, part-time jobs with no benefits and no security,” said Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix.

• Traffic and neighborhoods

“Imagine the traffic congestion of 16,000 people leaving the proposed stadium district every time there’s an event. You can’t mitigate your way out of that kind of traffic jam. Our neighborhoods are amongst the most affordable in Tempe, but that is already being threatened. Imagine the impact of 2000 luxury residences. Where do regular working families go? If you ask Alex Meruelo and the people backing this proposal, we can just go to hell or leave town if we don’t like it,” said Philip Yates, a fifth-generation Tempe resident whose neighborhood is immediately adjacent to the proposed arena site.

• Water waste and environmental impact

“According to the City of Tempe, the Coyotes entertainment district alone is projected to use 1 million gallons of water per day and that doesn’t even include the outdoor ice skating rink. This ill-advised development will increase our water use in a time when we’ve been reducing our consumption and the City is preparing all of us – families, businesses, and government operations – for deeper cuts to come. That is irresponsible, above and beyond the developer’s lies about the area being a landfill, which under any EPA definition available, it is not and in fact it houses important city services and more than 150 employees,” explained Lauren Kuby, ASU Senior Global Futures scientist, former Arizona Municipal Water Users Authority board member, and two-term Tempe councilmember.

• ASU student concerns

“What students care most about is exactly what this developer and his proposed “entertainment district” makes worse: our water crisis, air pollution, and sustainability. We care about people having a safe and affordable place to live – not luxury condos. We aren’t impressed by more part-time, low-wage jobs that don’t offer healthcare - and that’s if Meruelo even pays up,” said Andrea Soto, ASU sophomore and president of the Arizona Students Association.

• Housing and cost of living

“Not too long ago we were out here in Tempe advocating for people living in the Rio Salado riverbed. People were in immediate need of food, water, and shelter. We are tired of seeing developers time and time again take advantage during these perilous times to profit from the suffering of others, by using tax dollars for their own interests,” said Veronica Monge, co-chair of the Arizona Poor People’s Campaign.

• Tax dollars subsidizing the proposal

“This deal costs Tempe taxpayers tens of millions up front, and then gifts $700 million in tax dollars over the next three decades to a billionaire developer through massive property tax breaks, tax revenue sharing and the creation of two new property and sales taxes on businesses and residents. Instead of generating significant economic development, this deal siphons Tempe tax funds at rates so high, one economist who specializes in stadium finance said it would be a better boost to the economy to drop cash out of a helicopter than subsidize another sports arena,” explained Tempe resident and economist Charles Siler.

Tempe voters will ultimately decide the fate of the three propositions in a special election that starts April 19 and runs through May 16.

The propositions known as 301, 302 and 303 must all pass for the project to move forward. Proposition 301 deals with rezoning, Proposition 302 amends the city’s General Plan and Proposition 303 asks voters to approve selling city land as well as authorizing two property tax abatements and authority for the developer to create two new taxes to build an “entertainment district” and sports franchise arena, among other things.

If rejected, the city will be free to open a new request for proposals process to seek developers for the 40-plus acre plot of city-owned land. Voters can learn more about residents’ concerns at

Penich-Thacker is a leader with Tempe 1st and a strategic communications expert at Agave Strategy.