This is the first part of a three-part series about the Arizona Coyotes arena vote. Click here to read the introduction.
With the development of a multibillion-dollar entertainment district and, possibly, the future of a professional sports team on the line, the Tempe Wins campaign was a full-fledged operation. Sponsored by Bluebird Development, they employed consultants and canvassers, election experts of all backgrounds. Their goal: to convince the Tempe community to vote yes on all three of the propositions associated with the Tempe Entertainment District.
But it wasn’t just paid professionals working for the campaign. Tempe Wins committee chairman Nick Bastian was a volunteer. While the Tempe resident didn’t consider himself a big hockey fan, Bastian became interested in the Tempe Entertainment District after hearing about the proposal.
He took the time to meet with all sorts of people who had a stake in the development, like developers and city officials.
“The more I looked at it, the more I thought it was the right thing for our city to do,” Bastian said. Soon after, he found himself getting involved with the Coyotes and its development affiliates. When it became apparent that the proposal was going to the ballot, Bastian was asked to chair the committee for Tempe Wins.
As chairman, Bastian helped file paperwork with the city on behalf of the campaign. Outside of that, his role wasn’t all too structured. “I was…somebody that was there to try to help support and let people in our community know my thoughts and beliefs on why [voting yes] was the right thing,” Bastian explained. And he was far from being the only volunteer involved with the campaign.
“We had a really well-rounded group of people that volunteered time and effort,” Bastian said. “There were definitely some hockey fans. There were community leaders or neighborhood organizations, from youth sports people to business owners, friends and neighbors. It was a lot of different types of people.”
Meisterheim was among this committed group of volunteers.
Despite not being a Tempe resident, he devoted himself to the campaign because he wanted to ensure that the Coyotes had a fighting chance at staying in his home state of Arizona. Meisterheim was pulled into the campaign at the same time as fellow Coyotes fan Melissa Brown. Brown and Meisterheim are both administrators for the biggest Arizona Coyotes fan page on Facebook, a group that boasts over 6,000 members.
After being approached by Arizona sports journalist Craig Morgan, they were put in contact with Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo and Coyotes president Xavier Gutierrez.
“We got involved with them and said, ‘Hey, we’re on board. We want our team and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep our team here.’ We were basically at their use,” Brown said. The two also utilized the Facebook group as well, sharing information and requests from Tempe Wins on the page.
As a volunteer for Tempe Wins, Meisterheim ventured into the world of campaigning for the first time. He knocked doors and phone banked, working alongside other volunteers to spread the campaign’s message. Brown and Meisterheim also spoke at city council meetings in support of the entertainment district. Their dedication to the cause was boundless.
“We went to every single event that they had,” Brown said, laughing a bit to herself.
Tempe Wins tried all sorts of ways to reach voters. They ran billboards and bought up ads in the local papers. On social media, supporters posted pictures of themselves holding lawn signs or heading to the polls. In February, the campaign even held an event at Tempe’s LoPiano Park, where volunteers helped pick up trash. Even Meruelo pitched in with canvassing, going door-to-door to speak with Tempeans. Unfortunately, they were far from being the only group capturing the attention of voters. For all the passion and community that fell behind the cause of the Coyotes, there was also a formidable crowd that vehemently opposed the entertainment district.
Enter: the opposition coalition. Composed from an array of community groups, the opposition was headlined by Tempe 1st, a bipartisan grassroots campaign which formed in December 2022. Another major player was Worker Power, a grassroots community organization which mobilizes working people in voter engagement and policy intervention. Arizona Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander for Equity (AZ AANHPI), a statewide organization with a justice focus, also became involved as well. A variety of local business owners and unions also joined in on the cause.
Brendan Walsh, executive director of Worker Power, explained that his organization had been following the development since the Coyotes had started negotiations with Tempe. From the beginning, Worker Power was hearing from community members that they were doubtful of the economic benefits the project would bring to the city.
Walsh said that the biggest concern was that the city was going to put out a significant amount of public resources and tax abatements for billionaire developers. Under the deal between the Coyotes and Tempe, the entertainment district would get a 30-year tax break under a Government Property Lease Excise Tax.
“We just felt like, for what the Coyotes were requiring from the city, what the city was getting back was simply not enough,” Walsh said.
May Tiwamangkala, the Democracy Defender Director for AZ AANHPI for Equity, served as the organization’s campaign manager for the special election. They first stumbled upon information regarding the entertainment district in an article that announced the proposal was going to the community for a vote. After researching the issue, they came to a similar conclusion as Worker Power on the entertainment district; it was a poor deal for the community.
A concern raised by many on the opposition was that downtown Tempe wasn’t equipped to handle the congestion both the construction and eventual entertainment district would cause. With the AZ AANHPI for Equity office being located downtown, they experienced firsthand the kind of traffic new developments were causing.
There was also the matter of the proposal’s predicted environmental impact. With there being proposed cuts to the state’s water supply, the projected one million gallons the district would use concerned some groups.
Still, proponents of the project argued that the issue of water usage was being over-exaggerated, even falling under the city’s water conservation goals. But the environmental woes did not end there. The Sierra Club’s Palo Verde Group, which represents the Greater Phoenix Area, noted the potential loss of the city’s composting program (located at the landfill the entertainment district would replace) in their statement opposing the project.
Rebecca Hinton, a Tempe resident and a member of the Palo Verde group, also cited affordable housing as a reason she opposed the development.
“If we are to develop here [in Tempe], let’s do high-density housing that would fit the needs of the community. Not luxury housing and retail,” Hinton wrote in an email to Hockey of Tomorrow.
Another dilemma often raised was the question of sports betting— specifically, the potentiality that the new entertainment district would bring a large gambling operation right to the doorstep of Arizona State University. Meruelo owns Sahara Bets, which is also the betting partner for the Coyotes.
“We saw this [entertainment district] as [Meruelo] wanting to be close to ASU because that’s the target audience,” Tiwamangkala said, “You have young college students. If you put games in front of them, they’re going to want to play and I think a lot of Tempe residents saw this as a huge red flag.”
Ultimately, this wide array of issues likely made the opposition coalition stronger. They had rallied around such a broad spectrum of issues that it felt possible for residents to find commonality with at least one of the talking points, whether it was a concern about tax breaks or worries about rent costs being hiked up.
“Anyone could pick a topic and vote no on it,” Jacob Marson, a student at ASU and an organizer for Tempe 1st, explained. “You really had both sides of the [political] spectrum coming together.”
Both Worker Power and AZ AANHPI for Equity were no strangers to running a field campaign. In 2020, Worker Power knocked over a million doors in Arizona and Georgia. AZ AANHPI for Equity also regularly canvasses for elections as well. Using public voter file information obtained through the Secretary of State, the opposition coalition was able to identify all registered voters in Tempe. Through door-knocking and phone banking, AZ AANHPI for Equity was able to reach over 80,000 voters during the campaign cycle. Similarly, Walsh said that Worker Power knocked just over 60,000 doors, with around 30 people canvassing every day for seven weeks.
While Worker Power and AZ AANHPI for Equity showed up at the doors and on the phones, Tempe 1st focused its outreach efforts in a unique way through neighborhood house parties. Dozens of residents in different neighborhoods across the city volunteered to host house parties where the campaign had the opportunity to share their message. Marson estimated that thousands of voters were reached through this method of outreach. These house parties ensured that the opposition was speaking to voters face-to-face, which is often considered the most effective way to campaign.
The opposition coalition’s strong ground operation ultimately meant that their support base became extremely visible within neighborhoods, thanks to the distribution of lawn signs.
“Every neighborhood was covered in ‘no’ signs,” Marson said. “You would see ‘no’ signs on every street, if not multiple.”
Still, in the days and weeks leading up to the election, it seemed uncertain which way the results would swing. “I would kind of go back and forth [on] different days,” Bastian said. “...I thought we would win but I knew [the opposition] had run a very aggressive campaign and that it would come down to that evening where we just really wouldn’t know,” Walsh noted that polling indicated that in the absence of education regarding the proposal, the propositions for the entertainment would likely pass. If the opposition coalition could get its message out to voters and educate them, he felt they had reason to think the vote would go in their favor. Even then, they were not entirely certain that it was going to go their way. Only the truth of the ballot box would tell which side was going to win out.
Continue reading Part II tomorrow, in which Hockey of Tomorrow speaks with campaign organizers and volunteers about the aftermath of the election—why the ‘no’ vote won out, and what that might mean for the future of Arizona hockey.