A Song of Ice and Sand: On campaigns and consequences in the Arizona Coyotes Arena vote

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Heather Chen
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Tempe residents voted down the proposal for a new entertainment district which would have housed the Arizona Coyotes
In the months leading up to the vote, energetic campaigns emerged on both sides of the issue.
Hockey of Tomorrow investigates the campaigns involved with the special election and examines the consequences of the vote in a two-part series

A Song of Ice and Sand

Arizona resident Tyler Meisterheim grew up loving all sports.

At first, there was baseball, then basketball, then football. But the game that would go on to enrapture him the most was hockey.

On April 9, 2009, Meisterheim attended his first hockey game at the then-Gila River Arena, which housed the Arizona Coyotes. At first, the speed of the game drew him in. Then, during the second period, Coyotes center Martin Hanzal and Sharks right winger Devin Setoguchi dropped the gloves. Setoguchi pulled the first punch, but Hanzal ended up on top, smashing the Sharks forward into the glass before dragging him down to the ice. 

“That’s when I was hooked,” Meisterheim said. “Ever since that first game, I have made hockey my life.”

During the last few months, Meisterheim was on the front lines for Tempe Wins, a campaign associated with the Coyotes which supported the proposal for a new entertainment district that would have housed a new arena for the team.

Zac BonDurant/Getty Images
TEMPE, ARIZONA - APRIL 13: Clayton Keller #9 of the Arizona Coyotes talks the Barrett Hayton #29 before a faceoff against the Vancouver Canucks at Mullett Arena on April 13, 2023 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Getty Images)

The Proposal

Known as the Tempe Entertainment District, the proposal was first submitted to the city in late July 2021 by Bluebird Development, a firm affiliated with the Coyotes.

If approved, Bluebird Development would take ownership of a landfill owned by the City of Tempe and transform it into an entertainment district encompassing not only a multi-purpose arena, but also other properties for retail, housing and more.

It would take almost another year before the city would begin negotiations with Bluebird Development. In November, an unanimous vote from the Tempe city council moved the proposal further, opening it up to be voted on by the community in a special election, which eventually took place on May 16.

While the Tempe Entertainment District proposal slogged through the City of Tempe, the Coyotes were facing a crumbling relationship with the City of Glendale, where their home arena was located. Operating out of Glendale’s Gila River Arena, the Coyotes had an unlucky streak with poor management and lagging attendance.

There were bankruptcies and missed payments—and to add salt to the wound, it was clear that the Coyotes were looking into the option of moving to Tempe, something they had been eyeing as early as 2016. Soon after Bluebird Development submitted its proposal to the City of Tempe, Glendale announced that it was choosing not to renew the year-to-year lease the Coyotes had been operating under.

And thus, the Arizona hockey team set its sights on Tempe.

Joe Rondone (The Republic)
An Arizona Coyotes fan taking a picture of the Mullett Arena

On the Ballot

In late December 2022, the City of Tempe announced that the Tempe Entertainment District would officially be on the ballot. From there, campaigns began to officially form, swirling into existence as sides were taken.

On one end were the Coyotes and their allies, united under the Tempe Wins campaign, enthusiastic about the prospect of a new arena and a vibrant entertainment district. On the other end, the Tempe 1st campaign and a handful of other organizations established a growing opposition movement that stood vehemently against the project for a variety of factors, ranging from environmental concerns to fears about gambling.

As election day neared, each side was showing up on the ground, fighting for the votes of the community. Even with some private polling being conducted, the election results still felt unpredictable.

In the end, residents rejected the proposal for the Tempe Entertainment District, with as many as 57 percent of ballots voting no. That result was a feat in itself, an effort propelled by grassroots organizers and a bipartisan coalition that rose up in opposition to the proposal. 

In the days and weeks after the special election, Hockey of Tomorrow spoke with organizers, volunteers, and citizens on both sides of the vote. For Tempe, a complex triumph unfolds, driven by dedicated individuals within the community, leaving the fate of an NHL franchise hanging in the balance.

This three-part series examines the tactics deployed by each side, breaking down why the vote might have ended up the way it did.

Continue reading Part I tomorrow, in which Hockey of Tomorrow takes a look at the campaigns engaged in the Tempe special election—why they got involved, what strategies they utilized, and what their supporter bases looked like.

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