Suns, Phoenix clash with Goldwater Institute over arena-renovation records

Records related to the renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena are at the heart of a dispute between the Goldwater Institute and the city of Phoenix. (Cronkite News file photo)

PHOENIX – Deliberations over the Phoenix Suns’ desire for a $450 million renovation of Talking Stick Resort Arena began Tuesday morning at Maricopa County Superior Court with a dispute about documents not made public.

Real-estate developer Bramley Paulin, with the help of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative watchdog group, has sued Phoenix for not sharing details about proposed changes to what they contend is a “government asset.”

“And even though the Suns operate it,” said Jon Riches, Goldwater’s director of national litigation and general counsel, “they have to understand that when you’re dealing with a public asset that involves the expenditure of public funds, a lot of the information involved there has to be open to the public.”

The future of the 26-year-old arena is the subject of much debate. Past discussion has included building an arena in a new location or having the Suns and Arizona Coyotes share a facility. The Suns then shifted their focus to renovation.

Jim Pitman, a member of Suns Legacy Partners LLC and the Suns’ executive vice president and chief financial officer, said the team had the engineering and design-planning firm HOK conduct a feasibility report on the arena and paid for 100 percent of the costs.

The Suns and the city signed a non-disclosure agreement on June 29, 2016, Pitman said in court Tuesday, with the purpose to “protect the information that the Suns were providing to HOK, as much of it was confidential and related to our private entity.”

The Goldwater Institute argued that just because the Suns and HOK deemed the information confidential doesn’t shield it. Talking Stick, where the Suns have played since 1992, is owned by Phoenix; the Goldwater Institute argues that as public asset, records should be made public.

Pitman said the feasibility report contained ticket-pricing strategy, revenue analysis as it relates to sponsorships, future marketing ideas that would be “new to our area,” cost estimates for the future renovation and game receipts that show ticket sales and revenue from the past.

In addition, he said, the report has innovative concepts that aren’t on the market yet. If they were to be made public, Pitman argued, Phoenix and the Suns would lose out on gaining the most from ideas they discovered.

The report can only be accessed by a “very limited number” of people, Pitman said, and is kept in locked offices at night.

With the study showing estimates of how much the project is going to cost – in essence, what the Suns are willing to pay – Jeremy Legg, special-project manager for Phoenix, said that if bidders for any future construction contract were able to see what the Suns and the city can pay for certain items of the project, neither party would get the best possible offers.

During questioning, the Goldwater attorneys argued that the Suns and Phoenix have no evidence that those ideas are industry secrets.

After coming back from break, however, Goldwater’s representatives said that anything in the report dealing with public safety – such as entrances and exits – could remain private. Pitman said Phoenix police have told him “all major arenas are considered soft targets” for a terror attack.

“The public has an interest in how its asset is managed, maintained, how much money is going to be spent on it and for what purposes,” Riches said. “There are certain things that might have public safety implications that simply aren’t important for those purposes.”

Judge Christopher T. Whitten said he would give both sides a written order explaining “where I’m going.”

“If the records are disclosed, then we will have them,” Riches said. “And if they’re not, then will assess the judge’s order and decide what the next steps are.”