Newark Mayor Cory Booker says the New Jersey Devils betrayed the city by failing to fulfill commitments that helped the National Hockey League team get $200 million in taxpayer money for a new arena.
Booker last week called Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, a former Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEHMQ:US) executive, a “high- falootin, high-class huckster and hustler” who came to Newark with “a mouthful of promises and a pocketful of lies” after an independent arbitration panel granted the team $2.7 million a year in disputed parking revenue.
Booker told Bloomberg Television today that his city has made painful financial sacrifices while Vanderbeek has dodged promises to pay for job training, youth organizations and a recreation center.
“This was a very difficult decision for Newark to put hundreds of millions of dollars into an arena,” Booker said. “There’s a sense of betrayal of the city, on just a moral level, during the worst economy, when the unemployment lines right down the street from his office were getting longer and longer.”
Booker previously called Vanderbeek “a mensch” and a “straight shooter” before the city lost the arbitration, according to a statement from Devils Arena Entertainment, the holding company for the hockey club.
“The mayor is playing fast and loose with the facts,” the company said in the statement, noting that the Newark Housing Authority initiated the litigation and arbitration. “Now that the mayor doesn’t like the resulting rule of law he is looking to change the rules -- it’s Booker’s law, not constitutional law. That should be of great concern to any business considering investing in Newark.”
The city in 2004 sold about $200 million in bonds in 2004, backed by airport and marine-terminal revenue, to pay for the arena, with the Devils saying they put in about $185 million. The team relocated to Newark’s Prudential Center from the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 2007 and is set to begin a first-round playoff series with the Florida Panthers on April 13.
Booker called the Newark arena “an engine for economic opportunity,” that was built primarily with public money, even though he opposed the deal when it was implemented by the previous administration. Vanderbeek has been a beneficiary, after selling everyone from community groups to local ministers on his team’s commitment to the city.
“Now everybody’s asking these questions: ‘Hey, whatever happened to that recreation center you said you were going to build?’” Booker said. “What he’s done over the last three or four years is find every creative legal strategy, negotiating strategy, to try to shortchange what is clearly owed to the city.”
The New York Post reported in March that a deal to restructure the team’s debt had fallen apart, and Vanderbeek had about three months to find another investor or risk banks foreclosing. The newspaper cited an unidentified person close to the talks.
Booker, who detailed some of his complaints against Vanderbeek today in an editorial in Newark’s Star-Ledger newspaper, said he doesn’t regret using strong language in his attack on the team and its owner.
“I was tired of being a Jeff Vanderbeek apologist,” he said. “He’s called on me to help them sell suites, to help them land sponsors. I’ve been personally involved in helping to support them. Now after six years, he’s really shortchanged the city.”
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