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"Real Salt Lake is Here to Stay," Says Gov. Huntsman

"Real Salt Lake is Here to Stay," Says Gov. Huntsman

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Watch the Governor's Speech by clicking video icon to the left (KSL News/AP) -- Major League soccer in Utah is here to stay. The state legislature finalized the plan Thursday afternoon to make it happen.

Hoping to keep a team in Major League Soccer's smallest market, the House endorsed a $35-million plan that pays for a parking garage and land for a stadium, ending days of acrimony over whether the project deserves public aid.

In response, Real Salt Lake Owner Dave Checketts said the franchise, now entering its third season, will stay in Utah.

"Real Salt Lake is a permanent part of this Utah community. This really is a dream come true," he said at a news conference outside the Capitol.

And, there was relief from the team. Team captain Jason Kreis said, "It's been an emotional couple weeks because we didn't know what was going to happen. And for me, 34 years old, I've had to face the end of my career."

Before the vote, Gov. Jon Huntsman personally urged lawmakers to get aboard, warning that Utah's image was at stake.

"I think we need to show there is a level of collaboration between public and private here," he said. "There isn't a single facility in the country that is of this size that has been done without this kind of public-private partnership."

The team plays at the University of Utah's football stadium, but the lease expires after the 2007 season. Without a 20,000-seat, soccer-only stadium, Checketts insisted he would have to sell the team.

"It was one of the all-time roller coasters. I've never been on one to equal it," he said.

Yet less than an hour from that moment, there were tense words on the floor of the House of Representatives. Questions about using Salt Lake County's hotel tax and buying land for the stadium still linger.

Rep. Larry Wiley from Salt Lake City said, "I understand that Real and soccer is a good thing and all that, but I've got constituents I've got to answer to."

But most here, as in the Senate, were wooed by soccer's future potential.

"If I look at my grandkids," said House Majority Whip Gordon Snow, "there is no question which sport is the sport of preference. It's soccer."

The House voted 48-24 to direct $15 million in hotel taxes to buy land in Sandy for a stadium. Another $20 million would build a parking garage near the site. Separately, Sandy has pledged $15 million for the $110-million project.

"I believe this is too important to let slip through the cracks," Huntsman said.

Huntsman said Real officials have pledged to invest in an elite soccer academy and spend $7.5 million to develop youth soccer fields.

"This is a new opportunity for our youth," the governor said. "Soccer is the sport of 21st-century America."

Before the vote, he spoke to a large group of House Democrats, perhaps proof that he was anticipating a tight vote in a chamber where Republicans hold a 55-20 advantage. The Senate approved the bill Tuesday.

Huntsman has repeatedly told taxpayers not to worry because the 4.75-percent tax is primarily paid by Salt Lake County tourists. But that was one of the reasons why Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, voted no.

"What are we telling those travelers? Thank you for visiting Utah. Thank you for letting us gouge you," he said. "Is that the message we really want to send?"

Rep. Brad King, D-Price, said the land investment would be a good way to promote Utah to the world.

"With television coverage alone, Real is going to get international attention," he said. "This is worth millions and millions of dollars we will never commit from state coffers to promote us."

In August, Checketts and public officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking in Sandy without having a firm financial agreement.

He was counting on $30 million in hotel taxes from Salt Lake County, but Mayor Peter Corroon suddenly retreated Jan. 29, saying it was a "gamble." A consultant and a county committee said revenue projections for games and concerts were too optimistic.

Real had set a Friday deadline for Utah officials to come up with another plan.

"Frankly, we're racing the clock," Huntsman spokesman Mike Mower said. "St. Louis keeps sweetening the deal."

Corroon still is standing by his decision.

"The state may have a higher risk tolerance than Salt Lake County," he said in a written statement. "I am a strong supporter of Real Salt Lake. However, my priority is and has always been serving the public and protecting their best interest."

The Salt Lake County Council favors the new plan. Council member Joe Hatch said the bill approved by the House and Senate makes more sense than the deal rejected by Corroon.

A hotel tax will be extended by 10 years to 2027 to help pay for land and reduce the need for bonds.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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