Editorial: MLS can win Austin’s heart with the right deal

We know Austin is a good fit for Major League Soccer — and having a team would give the city bragging rights for its first pro sports team. We know, too, Major League Soccer is enamored with Austin: Since last year, Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt has been working on a deal to relocate his team from Columbus to Austin in a proposal that all but has the blessing of league officials.

The biggest question – and potential sticking point — is whether a stadium should be built on private property or city-owned land, and therefore, subsidized by taxpayers?

Negotiations are focused on city-owned land at McKalla Place in North Austin, a site Precourt has identified as ideal after their two preferred sites on city parkland near downtown fell through. McKalla – in a warehouse district off Burnet Road – has potential because of its proximity to the Domain with its restaurants, bars, hotels and other amenities.

COMMENTARY: Why an MLS stadium is perfect for north-central Austin.

In exchange for the 24-acre site, Precourt is offering to build the city a $200 million stadium and provide community benefits company officials say are worth more than $326 million. (We could not verify those figures with Precourt or the city.)

Understanding the offer requires looking beyond the stadium; it cloaks the true details of Precourt’s offer. Taking it off the table gives the public a clear view of what’s in this deal for taxpayers — and if it’s enough.

The 20,000-seat stadium might be the most quantifiable perk Precourt is offering, but it’s not a benefit for taxpayers.

Precourt no doubt would finance a beautiful stadium and give ownership of it to the city, at least on paper. But the city would transfer it back to Precourt in an arrangement that would give Precourt control and management of the venue for up to 99 years.

Under those terms, ownership remains with Precourt. That’s a direct benefit for Precourt — not taxpayers. Precourt also would get city-owned land for free or very little cost. That’s a double win for Precourt, not taxpayers.

UPDATE: The good, bad and ugly for McKalla Place as possible MLS stadium site.

The benefits that really matter to taxpayers in this bargaining are unquantifiable because Precourt’s proposal lacks figures — meaning dollar amounts — that add up anywhere near the $326 million it’s dangling as community benefits.

Those details are needed; the sooner the better, lest taxpayers get short-changed in this deal.

Figuring out what is fair and beneficial to the city and its taxpayers should be evaluated based on measurable financial and in-kind payments to the city, community or charities – minus the stadium and its construction costs.

Precourt could help its position significantly by adding measures that would help Austin address its toughest challenges, such as jobs for the hard-to-employ, including people with criminal records, or directly contributing to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

With nearly 1,000 jobs Precourt estimates it will need to sell food and operate, maintain and clean up the stadium and park, designating some lower-skilled jobs to people trying to get back on their feet would be doable.

We’re encouraged that the city is doing its homework, which the public will see June 1.

RELATED: Economists weigh in on community benefits package for MLS stadium site.

In March, the city council approved a resolution directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to provide a detailed analysis of McKalla Place as the potential site of an MLS stadium that includes weighing what else the city could do on the site. For now, the city is keeping mum about what the property is worth based on appraisals and market rates.

That analysis should specify the infrastructure McKalla Place needs to accommodate 20,000 fans in the already congested Burnet Road corridor. Council Member Leslie Pool rightly asked that Capital Metro be included in the city’s analysis to look at the feasibility of locating its nearby rail station at the stadium. Bus lines and shuttles from the Domain to the soccer stadium also should be added to a multimodal list of transportation options, including parking.

Transportation and parking pose a huge challenge, and no one should pretend that they don’t. Those and other upgrades will cost money and taxpayers should not have to foot that bill alone.

Precourt’s offer at this point is not likely to win over some skeptical city council members, community activists and residents who highly value city assets and have seen too many bargained away in questionable deals.

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There still is lingering frustration and ire over the deal regarding the high-profile Seaholm building in downtown Austin. The city still owns the property, but on paper only. The property is controlled by a private entity that has a 99-year lease on the 100,000-plus square feet of office space in the renovated 1950s power plant building. And there is plenty of criticism that Austin residents never got what was promised in the way of public space or civic use at the historic landmark site.

The former Robert Mueller Airport site is another disappointment, redeveloped more as an affluent community than the mixed-income development that was envisioned when the city was negotiating with private developers and neighborhoods.

If Precourt wants to bring MLS to Austin, and that certainly would be a plus, Precourt will have to do better in filling in the blanks with figures that can be verified, jobs that help unemployed Austin residents, contributions to affordable housing, public transit upgrades and other infrastructure to manage traffic congestion and protect neighborhoods from traffic and noise disruption.

Winning over Austin residents can’t be done with lip service, team merchandise giveaways, or sketchy proposals. The public has seen that movie before and isn’t in the mood to watch the rerun.

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