While local soccer enthusiasts might be elated at the news that a Major League Soccer team is serious about making Austin its home, they might have to persuade Austin residents at large to approve bringing the city’s first professional sports franchise.
An election over bringing the Crew SC soccer team — currently based in Columbus, Ohio — to Austin for the 2019 season is becoming a growing possibility as parkland in the core of the city is emerging as a potential location for a stadium that would need to seat at least 20,000 people.
Such a drastic change to parkland would be reminiscent of an effort two years ago to build world-class golf courses in far East Austin, something that the city ultimately said would likely need an election.
While Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt has promised he won’t use taxpayer money to build a facility, the economics would make much more sense if the city were able to provide the land for it free of charge.
To that end, the Austin City Council has ordered the city to research what city-owned land could be used for a MLS stadium, including parkland. Several media reports show that Butler Shores Metropolitan Park has emerged as the most attractive location for Precourt.
The park sits in a choice spot along Lady Bird Lake, just behind the Zach Theatre where Barton Creek empties into the Lady Bird Lake. It also meets Precourt’s goal of having a stadium in the city’s core.
But repurposing the parkland would likely trigger a public election, something Precourt’s lobbyist Richard Suttle said Precourt’s company would prefer to avoid.
Suttle said the company has conducted surveys leading it to believe voters would approve a proposal to bring the team to Austin. But holding an election could threaten Precourt’s desired timeline for a move to Austin for the 2019 MLS season.
Precourt would like to have a site for a stadium picked by Jan. 1 and an agreement with the city in place by the summer. Meetings those deadlines would be difficult if the city held an election in either March or May, and outright impossible if a soccer election were held in November 2018.
“We are not afraid of an election on bringing in MLS to Austin,” Suttle told the American-Statesman. “The only concern I can think of is we have a finite amount of time to take advantage of this opportunity and we would have to evaluate whether an election scenario fits into the scheduling.”
Texas law states that no parkland can be sold at any price without voter approval. Austin’s city charter underlines the law, adding restrictions for leasing parkland as well. A drastic change in purpose for parkland would also trigger an election under state law.
But laws mandating an election are not entirely ironclad. Suttle said a stadium could be considered a parkland use. Concession contracts do permit government land to be used for private business purposes. The city also refused to give a definitive answer to whether an election would be necessary.
Council Member Kathie Tovo, who spearheaded a resolution to search for city-owned land as a possible home for a MLS stadium, said she sees similarities to a previous attempt to build a world-class golf course on parkland in 2015.
Tovo said that when the council was considering building the PGA-level golf courses at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, the contract before the council felt like “a way of skirting a vote.”
The plan had firm support from then-City Manager Marc Ott, but stalled after Ott signaled that having an election would likely be the best course of action. In the end, the council opted to request a new master plan for the entire park.
Voters also narrowly defeated a proposal to turn a portion of the park into a hotel and golf courses in 2000.
Tovo told the Statesman the city might be best served by holding an election if the council attempts a license agreement with Precourt for a stadium. She said her resolution asking the city’s staff to identify city-owned properties that could serve as a possible stadium location was a way for the city to get ahead of the likely large amounts of input it would receive if parkland is chosen.
“It was important to me that we approach any consideration of locating a soccer stadium in a way different from the Walter E. Long discussion several years ago,” she said. “I want to make sure that at the outset we discuss whether community benefits outweigh the loss of a public space.”
But Tovo said she wanted to hear what the city attorney’s office thinks about whether an election would be required.
Austin resident Bill Oakey, a retired accountant who blogs about affordability, has researched the laws and said that using parkland for a stadium would “absolutely” require an election. The scale of the project would move it beyond smaller concession contracts, and Oakey said he would support a large-scale, public-private partnership if it brought in revenue for the city’s parks.
“That would be a win-win, but it would have to come with an election,” he said.
And even with indications that voters might support it, Circuit of the Americas Chair Bobby Epstein, who is working to bring a minor league team from the United Soccer League to the track’s land in 2019, said there is always a risk when voters are involved.
“The more hurdles you have to jump over, certainly the more challenging the goal becomes,” Epstein said.