Arizona land auction ignores ‘puts professional hockey in serious jeopardy’

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Exactly two months after the owners of the Arizona Coyotes sold the team to a Salt Lake City businessman, team leadership says the future of hockey in Arizona is in serious jeopardy.

That’s because the Arizona Department of Lands announced Friday that it has canceled an auction for desert land north of Phoenix, which hockey team owner Alex Meruelo was eyeing to develop a new arena.

The Land Administration said in a press statement that “it is in the Fund’s interest to cancel the auction and rearrange the steps.”

According to the Land Department, the proposed development would need a special use permit, which the department now requires the applicant, the Coyotes, to secure before purchasing the land.

The NHL franchise had been eyeing the land totaling about 100 acres, located on Loop 101 west of Scottsdale Road, for an arena and mixed-use development. The land was scheduled to be sold at auction on June 27, with a starting bid of $68.5 million.

Coyotes blast the Land Department in a statement

The Coyotes issued a scathing statement about canceling the auction, which they said “seriously threatens the future of NHL hockey’s return to the desert.”

The team described the cancellation as a “unilateral” move by the department over the Coyotes’ objections, after they said they had met every legal obligation.

“The organization worked in good faith with ASLD and was on track to win next week’s auction until the abrupt reversal by ASLD today,” the team said in a statement.

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Canceling the auction means the state is giving up “millions, perhaps billions, of dollars that would have gone directly to K-12 education,” the statement said.

“The Arizona Coyotes are exploring all of our legal options in light of this short-sighted decision by the state,” the statement said.

The Phoenix location does not currently allow a yard

Phoenix spokeswoman Telia Galaviz said the Land Department requested a zoning explanation at the site, and the city determined that a sports arena was not permitted under the current zoning. She said the arena would require “the approval of a special permit through the rezoning process.” Rezoning is a process that changes the permitted uses on a site, requires a series of public hearings and can take several months.

The Coyotes have not applied for a special use permit yet, “but we look forward to receiving the application and working through the process with (the team),” Galaviz said.

Earlier, a spokesperson for the state Department of Lands said the team needed city approvals to move forward.

“We understand that the delay in the auction is a disappointment to our applicant and members of the public, but a change in timing is a wise decision for the Fund,” a department spokesperson said in a press release. The state corporation “remains open to working with our applicant to offer the land for auction in the future if a special use permit is obtained.”

Fans and Valley leaders target Meruelo’s leadership

Phoenix City Councilman Jim Waring, in whose district the proposed arena would fall, said Friday that the Wolves should “get a zoning lawyer. They don’t have a lawyer. Get into the city, come up with a plan, then go through the process. Then buy it.”

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A staffer who works for Phoenix Councilman Kevin Robinson in District 6, which does not include the site, criticized the Coyotes’ statement and intentions on X, Twitter previously.

Jack Kenny wrote: “You idiots have never worked in good faith. No one trusts you and no one wants to work with you.” “Years of being a bad actor means you have to jump through some hurdles to regain trust, and instead you resort to complaining on Twitter.”

Rich Nairn, the former Coyotes executive vice president of communications who worked for Meruelo until September 2023, criticized Meruelo’s ownership of social media.

“Hopefully he finally pulls back so the NHL can start discussions with other real potential owners,” Nairn wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in response to Craig Morgan of PHNX Sports.

The land is located in Phoenix but lies along the border with Scottsdale, whose mayor has publicly criticized the project.

Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega said Friday that he had previously indicated the land had a “questionable zoning right.”

“Mr. Meruelo’s fantasy hockey proposal was just a smokescreen when he came out after running the franchise,” Ortega said in a text message. Ortega also criticized Meruelo’s intentions to seek the title of “theme park district” as a mechanism to fund the development. However, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego previously said she was not interested in giving a tax incentive like a theme park district.

Meruelo must pursue the expansion team himself

Meruelo sold the team’s hockey assets to Ryan Smith, owner of the Utah Jazz, in April, but kept the Coyotes name and branding, with the goal of bringing an expansion team back to Arizona. The NHL gave Meruelo a five-year deadline to build an arena suitable for professional hockey in order to have an expansion team.

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Under the agreement, Meruelo can only bring in partners for up to 20% of the project, meaning he must retain the lion’s share of ownership.

In April, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would need about 18 months’ notice to reactivate the franchise, and said the league would monitor the milestones the project achieves, especially progress on the physical buildings. Meruelo said at the time that he was committed to winning the auction.

The team has released designs for the proposed arena and mixed-use district surrounding the new facility, which will include restaurants, retail, a hotel, office space, a 3,500-capacity theater and 1,900 residential units.

When the team’s move to Salt Lake City was announced, Bettman said it became clear that the Coyotes would be playing at Arizona State University’s Mullett Arena for too long to be suitable for the NHL.

“As a college rink, it’s a good facility, but it’s not a major league facility,” Pittman said at the time.

The average NHL player’s career lasts between four and five years, so Bettman said it’s unfair for professional players to play their entire careers in the college arena.

Al-Jumhuriya correspondent Sam Kamak contributed to writing this article.

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