The Utah Jazz owner had a chance to court MLB, emails show, but chose to pass
Months before The Larry H. Miller Co. made waves by announcing it would lead a coalition to bring Major League Baseball to Salt Lake City’s west side, the developers behind the company’s chosen location had another potential suitor in mind.
Emails obtained through a public record show that key players in the quest to develop the 100-acre Power District property along North Temple first approached Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith last September with the idea of a to court ballparks.
The talks come after an announcement Smith made in August about his intention to bring another professional sports franchise to the Beehive State and revealing Salt Lake City’s passion for keeping professional sports in the Utah capital .
“If there’s any discussion of a big project in the state,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in an interview, “I want it to happen in Salt Lake City — a big, catalytic investment project like this.”
A Jazz spokesman declined to comment on the talks.
In a Sept. 12 email to Mendenhall’s top aide, Josh Caldwell, an executive at Minneapolis-based construction company Mortenson, said he spoke to Gary Hoogeveen, CEO of Power District landowner Rocky Mountain Power, about the possibility, Major Bringing League Baseball to Salt Lake Town.
“Having delivered nearly 250 professional and campus sports and entertainment facilities across the country, including sports-anchored entertainment districts like the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park and the Golden State Warriors’ Thrive City,” Caldwell wrote, “we are your local sports industry expert in.” Related to real estate and entertainment districts. We are also very well networked, especially with the MLB.”
After a big announcement
Caldwell said the timing of the call was tied to Smith’s intent to expand his sports businesses.
Smith announced on Aug. 19 that he was working with sports investment firm Arctcos to bring a third pro team to Utah, days after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox publicly said he would like to see Major League Baseball in the State is coming and that the former Draper Prison, now called The Point, would be a “great place” to host a club.
The first outside pitch about the Power District site, Caldwell said in that Sept. 12 email, was to Mendenhall, who gave “rousing support” to the idea.
A week earlier, during a Downtown Alliance trip to Cincinnati that included a tour of the Ohio city’s sports and entertainment district, Caldwell and the mayor discussed the possibility of a major league ballpark on the West Side.
“I assume she will/has spoken to you about this,” Caldwell wrote to staff, “but the mayor has asked me to liaise and coordinate with your team about the resources I have available to help her with the.” Ryan Smith can help put together a proposal to demonstrate the merits and validity of bringing MLB to SLC, specifically the Power District.
Mendenhall said she met with Smith and Cox separately via Zoom early on to pitch the concept and highlight the site’s proximity to downtown, the international airport and a TRAX light rail line.
Weeks later, Smith, the mayor and Hoogeveen walked the site, Mendenhall said in an interview, to get a sense of the scale and placement of the development.
“He (Smith) was really intrigued by the space when we personally visited the site,” the mayor said, “and also by Rocky Mountain Power’s willingness as a landowner to be a partner in this conversation.”
But in the weeks that followed, Mendenhall said, there wasn’t much engagement with the Jazz owner.
“It was quite difficult to pin him down and meet up with him,” she said. “He was very busy.”
Public financing options discussed
Emails from Caldwell indicate that behind-the-scenes work was being done to compile data analytics to support MLB’s move to Salt Lake City, including a site survey, a feasibility study, a Power District master plan, and a “speed-to- Market” analysis.
The team that put together the proposal included Mortenson, renowned sports venue architecture firm Populous and sports analytics firm Elevate.
On October 19, Caldwell emailed Rachel Otto, Mendenhall’s chief of staff, and Danny Walz, the chief operating officer of the city’s sanitation board, to say that work on the baseball proposal is progressing, but the group is aware what public financing options there are were available from the city.
“Let’s plan to catch up early next week,” Caldwell wrote Oct. 29. “We have made some good progress on our side and I have some positive news for you. I would like to get a better sense of the public funding opportunities available, including if/how [tax increment financing] enter the game.”
An RDA spokesman said Walz told Mortenson that because the Power District falls within the agency’s North Temple project area, it could qualify for public funding opportunities such as loans and reimbursement of tax increases.
Mendenhall said her office never discussed additional public funding opportunities for the project with Mortenson.
Talks with Smith “fizzled out”
Efforts to connect with Smith and his inner circle continued through at least November, records show. Caldwell emailed Otto on November 17, asking her to put him in touch with Mike Maughan, a senior Smith MP.
“If you think more about the conversation about Mike Maughan, assuming you agree that it might be of benefit to our cause,” he wrote, “I would gladly accept your offer to introduce myself. Let me know if you have any further thoughts on this.”
The email went unanswered by Otto, and Caldwell sent a follow-up message on November 28.
Smith knew the city would be able to facilitate discussions about development, zoning and transit so he could get a better idea of the feasibility of the site, Mendenhall said, but he never directed those requests to officials.
The mayor said she had lunch with Smith the first week of December to discuss the NBA All-Star Game in February, and by that point Major League Baseball was off his radar.
“There wasn’t a point where Ryan said to me, ‘Never mind, thanks for bringing this to us,'” Mendenhall said. “But his interest in MLB fizzled in terms of his conversation with the city.”
On Saturday, Smith stated on Twitter that he is tracking an NHL team and said efforts to bring North America’s premier hockey league to Beehive State are “on the move.” Smith met with the league’s commissioner in New York late last month, according to a report.
LHM joins the discussion
The Larry H. Miller Co., which is leading the high-profile effort to attract big league ball, “learned more” about the Power District as a potential site on Jan. 24 in a meeting with Mortenson and Rocky Mountain Power, a spokesman for The company said in a statement.
“After conducting our own due diligence, we shared opportunities with Mayor Mendenhall and her team in the first quarter of 2023,” said Amanda Covington, Miller’s chief corporate affairs officer. “We believe bringing a major league baseball team to the west side of Salt Lake City is a viable option.”
Covington said the Millers have been in contact with MLB since April 2022 but first learned of the North Temple location earlier this year.
Smith, meanwhile, is on the extensive list of business, civil society and government leaders — including the governor — supporting efforts to bring a team to Utah.
Salt Lake City, Mendenhall said, played no role in facilitating talks between Mortenson, Rocky Mountain Power and The Larry H. Miller Co.
The mayor has insisted that discussions about MLB never fed into her administration’s attempt to keep the Miller-owned Salt Lake Bees in the Utah capital (they’re moving to Daybreak in South Jordan after the 2024 season) and that they’re on the firm’s coalition attracted a major league club in January.
However, she remains curious to see how the west side play ball.
“I think the Power District is a very good idea for Major League Baseball,” Mendenhall said, “and I’m glad the big idea of it reached the Millers, who are willing to push that goal even if we had.” it was originally given to Ryan.”
— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Andy Larsen contributed to this story.
Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.