The first check of Austin’s appetite for Major League Soccer arrives Thursday when City Council votes on a resolution to help Columbus Crew SC ownership find a suitable stadium site.
Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie Tovo expects her fellow council members to knock this ball into the back of the net.
“I am optimistic about the vote,” Tovo said Wednesday. “I’ve heard some concerns from my colleagues about location, but the resolution was written to be broad in geographic area. If it passes — and I expect it will — this is really just the beginning of the process. But it’s an important first step.”
The resolution, which Tovo’s office drafted, directs city staff to begin an analysis of city-owned land, including underutilized parkland, for possible location of an “urban core” stadium and a large training facility that could be located anywhere in the city.
City Council held a work session Tuesday on the topic, and a representative of Precourt Sports Ventures, investor/operator of the Crew SC, liked what he heard.
“I was encouraged, and I look forward to engaging council members in conversation,” said Austin attorney Richard Suttle, a registered MLS lobbyist working on behalf of PSV.
PSV CEO Anthony Precourt announced Oct. 18 his intent to move to Austin in 2019 and build a privately financed stadium if the right site can be found.
MLS2ATX, a Precourt-funded initiative, is holding a supporter rally at Austin City Hall at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Tovo realizes there are a lot of hot-button topics involved.
“The idea of using parkland will draw a very engaged and vigorous discussion, and I’ll be front and center in that,” she said. “In the past I’ve expressed concerns about some of the uses for parkland. We want to preserve as much public use as we can. With a for-profit business, the bar would be extremely high in terms of providing public benefits.
“Now if it’s not about parkland, we will have a different kind of conversation. We want to know the impact on surrounding neighborhoods, what community programs could be involved and how this could really enhance soccer in this city, not just help the professional team.”
For instance, Tovo said, City Council eventually needs to find out other potential uses for the stadium, like school graduations or a playing field for other area teams, and what city programs could get displaced by building a 20,000-seat venue.
“Those conversations are in our future,” the Mayor Pro Tem said. “For now, the top priority is to identify some options for their owners. And it’s really important we talk about parkland on the front end because we, and the (Crew) owners, should know at the outset whether that is an option or not.”
Tovo said to date PSV has only asked for help lining up potential stadium sites. Both Tovo and PSV officials have told the American-Statesman that no timeline has been discussed.
“If there is a site that looks really promising, I can ask the staff to do a more concrete exploration,” she said. “It’s a month-to-month process.”
While ultimately a city-wide election may be necessary, Tovo said it’s far too early to speculate about that and indicated there are scenarios where an election would not be needed.
Tovo, who does not consider herself a soccer fan, said when Suttle contacted her about the possibility of the team relocating to Austin, she was interested.
“Yeah, I was intrigued by the idea and thought that this is something we should explore,” she said. “We are the largest city in the United States without a major league team, and this could be a good opportunity for us.”
Tovo said she has been pinged a lot on social media by Columbus fans, angry that Austin may be hauling off with their team, which is the MLS original franchise.
“I understand there is a lot of support in Columbus; they’re putting up a good battle and they might be successful,” she said.
“Yet if the owner wants to move the team, I represent the people of Austin and must consider whether this is good for our community. It’s important for the people I represent. I want to make sure Austin is approaching this effort as it does with other opportunities.”