CARSON CITY, Nev. (CN) - Amid a buzz of anticipation 33 1/2 years ago, more than 13,000 fans crammed into Cashman Field, a stadium with 9,300 permanent seats just north of downtown Las Vegas. They came to celebrate the facility's debut: an exhibition game between the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.
With the opening of the ballpark, Las Vegas had secured a home for a professional sports team—a Triple-A minor-league baseball squad affiliated with the Padres.
Las Vegas, however, is no longer content to be a minor-league city in the world of professional sports teams.
The city, which already has landed a National Hockey League expansion team, moved closer to possibly becoming the new home of the Oakland Raiders when the Nevada Legislature on Friday gave final approval to a lodging tax increase to help finance the construction of a 65,000-seat domed stadium in a bid to lure the NFL team.
Immediately after the legislative action, Raiders owner Mark Davis issued a statement, calling it a historic day.
"All parties have worked extremely hard to develop and approve this tremendous stadium project that will serve as a proud new home for the entire Raider Nation," Davis said.
The stadium also would be the home of the UNLV football team. A site for the publicly owned stadium has not been finalized. A government body would oversee the stadium, while a private events company chosen by that body would run the day-to-day operations.
Summoned to a special session by Gov. Brian Sandoval, a stadium proponent, lawmakers approved a bill to raise by 0.88 percent the per-night tax on hotel rooms along the Las Vegas Strip, the major gambling corridor, and by 0.50 percent on other rooms in the city's metropolitan area. The increased tax revenue will be used to pay off a general-obligation bond issue over 30 years to fund $750 million of the proposed $1.9 billion stadium.
The bill also hikes the room tax by an additional 0.5 percent to generate $400 million for expansion and renovation of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The family of Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands, has committed to invest $650 million in the stadium, while the Raiders have pledged $500 million.
"This is the beginning of the next chapter of southern Nevada's continued dominance in tourism, conventions and hospitality and presents an exciting opportunity for UNLV," Sandoval said in prepared remarks.
A state official said the Raiders would have to sign a minimum 30-year lease and a non-relocation agreement. Three-quarters of NFL owners would have to approve the Raiders' move, and two owners—Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots — reportedly have said they support it.
Passage of the room-tax bill required support from two-thirds of legislators in both chambers, which are controlled by Republicans. The Senate vote was 16-5. In the Assembly, the bill squeaked by with no votes to spare, 28-13.
The four-day special session featured legislators' applause after pro-stadium speeches by a trio of prominent hotel executives, opponents' outrage over a taxpayer handout to fund a billionaire's (Adelson's) dream, and passionate pleas from labor representatives for the opportunity to put more people to work.
Many legislators cited the creation of jobs, other economic benefits from filling up hotels and the chance to elevate Las Vegas' tourism industry as the basis for their pro-stadium votes. Aaron Ford, the Senate minority leader from Las Vegas, said he couldn't tell a constituent that he had a chance to create jobs and said no.
Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, a Democrat from Las Vegas, talked about unemployed workers in the trades who have committed suicide and others who have gone out of state to find construction work.
"You know what we did in the room today?" he said, addressing fellow members of the Assembly after the vote. "We created hope."
On the other hand, opponents expressed skepticism about the economic projections and argued that taxpayer-funded stadiums generally are risky and that the proposed Las Vegas deal, in the view of some stadium-financing experts, is particularly bad.
The Legislature didn't hear testimony from any of these experts. But officials who helped craft the stadium plan pointed out that Las Vegas is not like other cities because of its tourism base.
Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development who chaired a committee that recommended the stadium plan, told legislators that the state has experts who know the tourism industry better than anyone else and "who have proven they know what they're doing."
Legislators also were told that the financing plan will have two years' worth of debt reserves or savings, rather than the usual one year, in case of another recession, and that the estimates for room-tax revenue are conservative.
The stadium, according to the state's study, is projected to create nearly 19,000 construction jobs and 6,000 permanent jobs and have an annual economic impact of $620 million.
Officials also stressed it will attract about 450,000 new incremental visitors a year, people who would not have come to Las Vegas if not for a special event. The stadium would host an average of 46 special events a year, according to the study. That figure includes 10 NFL games and six UNLV games.
Three prominent casino executives—Steven Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts; Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International; and former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones Blackhurst, a Caesars Entertainment executive vice president—urged legislators to back the stadium.
Legislators applauded their remarks, an unusual occurrence because of legislative decorum and one that drew criticism from one member of the Assembly who tweeted: "We clapped instead of asking questions, and I just don't think that's appropriate."
Wynn called the stadium an "absolute dead-bang winning opportunity" because of its potential to take Las Vegas' tourism industry to the next threshold. Likewise, Murren said, "We can't afford to lose this opportunity." Jones Blackhurst described it as a gift.
Chris Giunchigliani, a county commissioner from Las Vegas, provided some of the fiercest testimony against the stadium tax increase.
"How do you explain corporate welfare?" she said. "Let the people who have the money build it."
Other critics emphasized that Nevada is facing a $400 million budget shortfall and has far more pressing needs for tax dollars, especially its declining education system. A stadium backer countered that the hotel-room tax is the appropriate revenue source to promote tourism.
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