It’s easy to envision the benefits a Major League Soccer franchise could bring to Austin: a team that is a source of community pride, a stadium that is a gathering place for people from all over the city, matches that entertain thousands of fans and inspire a new generation of players, parklike grounds that provide a respite of green space in the middle of the city.
Those are all worthy and valuable things, even if it is difficult to put a price tag on them.
But the proposal by Precourt Sports Ventures to move the Columbus Crew SC to Austin would also cost real dollars, including long-term use of city-owned land that was privately appraised at $29.5 million under a deal that would potentially deprive the city, Austin schools and other taxing districts of millions of dollars in property tax revenue for decades to come.
If Austin leaders move forward with this deal, taxpayers deserve assurances that this use of public land and money will deliver a commensurate public benefit.
The Austin City Council should proceed Thursday with two resolutions related to the 24-acre tract at McKalla Place: a resolution by Council Member Kathie Tovo directing staff to start negotiations with Precourt, which wants to build a $200 million soccer stadium that would be owned by the city; and a resolution by Council Member Leslie Pool directing staff to solicit bids from anyone interested in developing that city-owned site for other uses.
Taken together, the two resolutions put Austin in a stronger negotiating position.
Tovo’s resolution, cosponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria, includes a checklist of the council’s expectations in this deal, which would return for a council vote once all the details are hammered out.
Among other things, Tovo’s resolution calls for exploring construction of affordable housing on part of the property, serving an obvious community need. It also calls for perks like more free or low-cost tickets, but we’d like to see more focus on opportunities for the city to reap money from the site through hosting special events or receiving a cut of certain stadium revenues.
As we’ve stated, any negotiated deal must include a detailed plan for handling traffic and parking needs on game nights, when up to 20,000 fans would be converging on a stadium site with scant on-site parking. Precourt should also help address a community need by filling its hundreds of part-time game-day jobs with workers who have faced barriers to employment, such as a criminal conviction.
Precourt is pushing for a deal to be finalized in the late summer or early fall, as it hopes to bring the team here for its 2019 season. But Austin’s negotiating timeline must serve the city’s interests, not Precourt’s, with enough opportunity to craft a thorough contract and provide the necessary staff analysis of the financial impacts. We are dismayed that this far into the process, city staffers have not produced even a rough estimate of the property taxes that such a stadium would pay if it remained on the tax rolls, or a range of property tax revenue that might be realized under other uses of the site.
The council must recognize that members of the public are more than city taxpayers. They are Austin school district families, Travis County residents, Central Health clients and Austin Community College students — all served by taxing entities that would be shortchanged if a soccer stadium is kept off the property tax rolls, as Precourt proposes to do. City negotiators must challenge Precourt to deliver meaningful benefits to those constituencies, too.
We don’t buy the argument from Precourt lobbyist Richard Suttle that forfeiting future property taxes on the site isn’t a real loss because the city and other taxing entities currently collect nothing on the empty site. Other developers have expressed interest in building on the site and would pay millions of dollars in property taxes.
Nor are we convinced that local governments get a sufficient benefit from the general economic activity a stadium brings, especially as the city consultant’s projections for this stadium were buoyed by optimistic calculations of out-of-towners’ dollars flowing into Austin.
At a council work session this month, several council members asked for information on how a proposed soccer stadium would stack up financially against other potential uses of the site. The resolution by Pool, whose District 7 includes the McKalla Place tract, can help answer that question.
Pool’s measure, cosponsored by Council Members Alison Alter, Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair, opens the door for other developers to pitch plans for the property. Those plans could include affordable housing, possibly in combination with retail and office spaces, or other creative or green spaces.
Knowing other developers have a shot at the site will push Precourt to put its best deal on the table. Having pitches from Precourt and other developers will help the council assess the trade-offs before taking a final vote.
Suttle has suggested this competitive process could blow up Precourt’s timeline for moving the team for 2019. That may be the case. But a move that makes sense for the Crew in 2019 still works in 2020. Austin shouldn’t expedite the franchise’s needs over the taxpayers’ interests.
Precourt has said Austin is a great market for soccer. Now’s the time for Precourt to demonstrate it will be just as great for Austin.