In an unaccustomed role that he handled with aplomb, John Elway came off the bench last weekend to make a fourth-quarter pitch for a new, $360 million stadium to house the Broncos.
To opponents of the stadium referendum, Elway's 30-second TV ad amounted to piling on. The ballot issue already is running ahead in the polls and has been bolstered by Denver's Super Bowl victory last January and 7-0 start this season.
On Tuesday, voters in the six-county Denver metro area will decide whether sales tax money should be used to pick up 75 percent of the cost of a facility to replace Mile High Stadium.
Under the proposal, the penny-per-$10 sales tax that built Coors Field would be extended to 2012 for the football stadium. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen would pay the remaining 25 percent, about $90 million.
The proposal, which trailed in the polls after the Broncos were upset by Jacksonville in the playoffs two years ago, has gradually gained ground.
A telephone poll conducted by Ciruli Associates for The Denver Post, KUSA-TV and KOA-AM Radio showed 58 percent in favor of the referendum and 37 percent opposed, with 5 percent undecided. The telephone poll of 500 regstered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
"Our sense of things is that it's closer," said Bill Schley, organizer of the group Citizens Opposing the Stadium Tax (COST). "It may all depend on who votes next week. Our supporters include the elderly and the retired, who tend to vote in higher percentages than others."
Schley said his group, which has been outspent about 50-1 by stadium tax supporters, was "a little surprised that he (Elway) could look us in the eye and ask us to increase revenues so the team could pay football players more money."
Bill Artist, campaign director for the Broncos-backed Citizens For a New Stadium (CFANS), said he expects the vote to be close.
"The Elway ad has to be a positive," he said. "He's such a great citizen and role model, a family man. He's the right guy to carry our message. John volunteered to help long before our organization was put together. He did it as a private citizen."
For many, their support of a stadium tax is based on fears that Bowlen will move the team if he doesn't get a new facility to replace 76,123-seat Mile High Stadium, which opened as a 19,000-seat baseball stadium in 1948 and has been expanded in stages.
Bowlen says city-owned Mile High is economically obsolete, which prevents him from competing against other NFL teams. The Broncos are the NFL's only team to receive no income from luxury seats, parking or concessions.
While Bowlen insisted it would be "too heart-wrenching for me to move this team," he said he would be forced to sell if the stadium issue fails.
"Every year we slip more and more notches down that food chain," Bowlen said. "Two or three years from now, we're going to be so financially disadvantaged that it's going to be impossible to maintain a high-caliber team."
Gina Volpe-Beasley, a lifelong resident of the Denver area and a Broncos fan, echoed the sentiments of many stadium supporters when she said, "I truly feel if we don't vote for it, the Broncos will leave."
Opponents argue it is bad public policy to use tax money to build a stadium for the use of a privately owned sports team. They also contend the public's 75 percent share of costs is too high, noting that team owners in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C., paid for their stadiums.
Under the proposal, the Broncos would pay rent starting at $1 million a year for 30 years and also would pay the cost of operating and maintaining the stadium, estimated at $4 million to $6 million per year to start. But the team would collect nearly 100 percent of stadium revenue, which initially would be $20 million to $30 million a year.
Taxpayers' share of the cost of construction is limited to $266 million, and their share of cost overruns is limited to $75 million.
If naming rights to the new stadium are sold, the proceeds would go to the taxpayers' share of the stadium cost.
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