Utah has Major League Baseball dreams as Rocky Mountain Power reimagines its Salt Lake land

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SALT LAKE CITY — Dale Murphy recently toured Rocky Mountain Power's massive 100-acre campus near the banks of the Jordan River with a pair of Larry H. Miller Company executives when one of them, Don Stirling, focused his attention on the three large steam stacks above them.

"We looked at them and (Stirling) goes 'You know, those look like baseball bats,'" Murphy recalled, standing a few hundred feet from those same smokestacks Wednesday afternoon.

Whether that's a sign or a coincidence doesn't matter; those three steam stacks could one day overlook a Major League Baseball stadium.

Murphy, a former seven-time MLB All-Star and two-time MVP, Stirling and Larry H. Miller CEO Steve Starks were there to scout out a preferred location for the project as a part of a large coalition called Big League Utah that is now throwing its hat in the ring for a major league team.

The group announced Wednesday that they are petitioning MLB to bring an expansion club to Salt Lake City. Led by the Larry H. Miller Company and the Miller family, the former Utah Jazz owners, it is composed of dozens of major business leaders, politicians and sports figures, bringing in everyone from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to current Jazz owner Ryan Smith to Murphy and even actor Ty Burrell.

"It's not a done deal but we are confident that it's going to happen," said Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Company. "It only makes sense that Utah is on deck to become (the next) expansion team."

If successful, it would be the largest fixture of a 100-acre redevelopment of the Rocky Mountain Power land, which is beginning to change. The baseball announcement came moments before the company broke ground on the first of a series of projects expected to completely change the campus into Salt Lake City's new Power District in the coming years.

The push to call Utah up to the big leagues

Baseball is rich in Salt Lake City's history, though most of it has been in the aptly named Ballpark neighborhood. It received that name because it's been home to Derks Field and then Smith's Ballpark for over a century, hosting a slew of different professional teams in that time.

However, that history thus far has been reserved for the minor leagues. The Salt Lake Bees, owned by the Miller Company, brought Triple-A baseball back to the city in 1994. The company announced earlier this year that it will move the team from Smith's Ballpark to a future site in South Jordan in 2025.

As it turns out, the company quietly had bigger aspirations for Salt Lake City. Starks revealed Wednesday that he and other Miller Company officials had met MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in New York City to talk about bringing an expansion team to Salt Lake City. They were told that the league is thinking about creating two new clubs, one in the East and one in the West.

"Based on those conversions, we have reason to believe we are a very viable candidate city and candidate market," Starks said. "We now consider Utah to be the future of America's pastime."

That meeting led to the creation of Big League Utah, which has grown over the past three months to collect a large group of prominent Utahns.

Miller explained that having a new major professional team would bring new economic development opportunities and unity to the city and the Wasatch Front. At the same time, she believes Major League Baseball makes the most sense out of the remaining major professional sports because she called it the most "family-friendly" option of the leagues not in the Beehive State.

"We think it provides fans and athletes an unforgettable ballpark experience," Starks adds, as renderings of a possible stadium concept flashed on a pair of screens in front of him. "It's hard to not imagine coming to a matinee game and seeing people gather on this site, looking east (toward) our city."

Pitching Utah to MLB

What remains to be seen is if Major League Baseball feels the same way about Utah.

The league last expanded in 1998 to bring in the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Rays, giving it 30 teams across the U.S. and Canada. A pair of those teams, the Rays and the Oakland Athletics, have been rumored to be looking to relocate elsewhere, which could bring MLB to new areas in the future.

ESPN reported Wednesday that the league wants to sort out the future location of those clubs before seeking to bring in new clubs, making the timeline for any expansion unclear at the moment.

Salt Lake City certainly isn't a shoo-in if MLB does create two new teams in the future. Music City Baseball in Nashville and the Portland Diamond Project in Portland, Oregon, are already vying for expansion franchises. If MLB does want a new team in the West, it could pit Salt Lake City and Portland against each other.

What Big League Utah is doing now is pitching that Utah is the place. Starks touts it as a "five-tool" location, a play on the baseball term for a player who can do everything. In this case, he says it is the fastest-growing market in the country, while having the best economy in the U.S. and the "most convenient geography."

There's also what he calls a "preferred shovel-ready site" for a new stadium already mapped out. The coalition circled the Salt Lake City location because it's not far from a pair of freeways, transit infrastructure and the growing Salt Lake City International Airport, while being located in from the region's largest city.

"Our fifth tool would be quality of life," Starks adds. "As Gail said, we're a family-friendly state and we welcome the most family-friendly sport in baseball."

If that's not enough, Utah also has the youngest population in the nation along with its growth. Cox said that's something MLB "cares deeply about" as it considers expansion markets.

It's also a place that, like Portland, has NBA and MLS teams; however, it's also hosted the Winter Olympics before and is seeking to do it again, highlighting its desire for major sports. There are also four Division I college programs, including two Power Five football teams, along the Wasatch Front, as well as two minor league teams in the Bees and the Utah Grizzlies.

A completely different major professional sports team could also end up in the Beehive State, too. Smith reportedly NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after an NBA Board of Governors meeting in New York last month.

Miller referred to Utah as "the state of sport" because of all these connections. If MLB does pick Salt Lake City, it wouldn't change the future of the Bees. The team will remain in South Jordan once the new stadium is built in Daybreak, Starks said.

The team will remain linked to the Los Angeles Angels through at least 2030.

Welcome to the Power District

The only certainty from Wednesday's event is that the Rocky Mountain Power campus is about to drastically change, new ballpark or not.

The festivities wrapped up with company, state and city leaders breaking ground on a new headquarters that will also include retail and housing along North Temple near 1200 West. It's the first 5½ acres of the roughly 100 acres of land that Rocky Mountain Power plans to redevelop in the future. The Salt Lake City Council approved a rezoning of the project area earlier this year.

Rocky Mountain Power acquired the large swath of land through transactions made in the 1940s. The facility once provided power to the region but that changed with time, said Jason Branch, the company's vice president of finance and business opportunity. He explained that the company decided in 2019 that it was time to reconsider the future of the property as it had become "dilapidated."

It took a few years but the company ultimately determined that the best option was to reinvest in the land they already owned, coming up with a new Power District for the city instead.

"We looked far and wide. We thought through a number of options and all roads eventually led to this site, the west side of Salt Lake City," he said. "We wanted to stay here on this site."

Most of the current structures are slated to be demolished in the future, making way for new mixed-use development. Those three baseball bat-shaped steam stacks aren't going anywhere, though. Branch said they will serve as a reminder of the district's "industrial heritage."

Whether an MLB team is a part of the redevelopment or not, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Rocky Mountain Power's plans are a major step in efforts to invest more in the city's west side and a massive moment in the city's history.

"(It's) the biggest transformational development in Salt Lake City in anywhere close to the downtown core," she said. "This, and the redevelopment of 100 acres, could be exactly what we've needed (to help the west side)."


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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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