For two years, developers were buying up land and modest homes in one of Chandler’s oldest neighborhoods. Now, they’re joining forces with the city’s most powerful political forces to transform the area into a conference center showcase that could cost taxpayers as much as $35 million.
Although several sites are being considered for the 30,000- to 55,000-square-foot center, most city leaders want it downtown.
Chandler will have to scrape up as much as $35 million and look at raising taxes if it wants a new conference center, a consultant told the City Council last week.
While the idea has strong support among business groups that stand to profit from a potential deal, the city has done little to reach out to those who would be affected the most by construction of a conference center — those living in the nearby neighborhoods.
City Manager Mark Pentz said officials haven’t spoken with residents who would be affected.
Although this was the second time the issue of building a conference center has come before the council, Pentz said it was too early to begin conversations with neighborhoods.
“No, they have not been asked to weigh in yet,” he said. Pentz added that the project is an opportunity for the city to make money on the conference center business that would otherwise go to neighboring communities.
Still, the prospect of shaking down taxpayers for extra cash right now has other city leaders shaking their heads in frustration.
“I don’t think some on this council get it,” said Councilman Jeff Weninger. “Sure, we’re in better shape than other cities right now, but we won’t be for long if we invest in projects like this.”
He appears to be the minority voice on the council at this point as his counterparts believe a conference center — especially one downtown — would be an economic boon for the city.
Other plans for the area include luxury apartments and more retail businesses to cap off the transformation of this one-time dusty downtown that was nearly dead.
Besides the initial $35 million investment by the city, consultants with Minneapolis-based Convention Sports and Leisure International told the council that Chandler would have to continue handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual subsidies, depending on the type of deal that’s made.
To cover the costs, the consultants gave the council a list of taxes that could be raised. That list includes boosting the city’s hotel and food and beverage taxes. However, that wouldn’t be enough, and they also suggested that raising the city’s more lucrative sales taxes would fully pay for the center.
Mayor Boyd Dunn, who supports building a conference center downtown, was adamant about not raising taxes. But he said the total amount of money the city will have to throw in is still up in the air.
“These numbers don’t mean anything until you know what the private sector is going to do,” he said. Dunn wants the city to partner with a private company to get a deal accomplished.
Right now, it’s still in the initial planning stages, but the push for a place to host weddings, corporate workshops and other events downtown is starting to gather momentum among city leaders.
Most on the council have said they want the center to help anchor redevelopment efforts in one of the oldest parts of this one-time farming community.
They believe it could attract groups from across the country to come to Chandler and spend their money here.
Besides elected officials, various business groups and organizations have drafted letters supporting construction of a center. Those letters were given to council members for consideration.
The organizations include the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership, Hilton Hotels and developer Westcor. All stand to profit from a conference center depending on where it’s built.
Westcor and Hilton, which have vested interests in the areas on and around Chandler Fashion Center, are pushing for the center to be built there. However, the other two organizations want it downtown where many of their members own businesses or land.
“Having a Conference Center in the Downtown would be a point of civic pride and a powerful economic generator for the entire city,” stated a letter from the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership.
Niels Kreipke, a developer, is a member of that organization who also has been buying up land on the potential construction site for the past two years.
Kreipke, who owns the development company Desert Viking, has been involved in numerous downtown redevelopment projects.
He said he needs his neighbor, the historic San Marcos Hotel, to help out and build more rooms to accommodate a new facility. Without the hotel’s commitment, he said there’s little chance there will be a conference center downtown.