VIEWPOINTS: City should decide on pro soccer with facts, not politics

Once again, an intriguing proposal has become politicized way too fast, all but preventing a dispassionate discussion about whether Major League Soccer would be a good fit for Austin — and if so, whether city-owned property or parkland should be home to a stadium.

Mayor Steve Adler’s downtown puzzle proposal to use tourist dollars to expand the Austin Convention Center and leverage the project to generate millions of dollars for the homeless was nearly killed by a similar kind of pointed politicking that chills constructive debate. Fortunately for the city and its homeless population, that proposal is on hold, offering a badly-needed cooling off period to accommodate a study by the University of Texas.

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But a proposal that would move Precourt Sports Ventures’ professional soccer team, Columbus Crew SC, to Austin is skidding off the rails without a viable assessment of the deal’s pros and cons. Blame political tactics.

Vocal opponents have presented the project as a corporate giveway — or something environmentally destructive to any city park. Meanwhile, Precourt hurt its own case by initially spinning the deal as a gift to the city, saying it would build the city a $200 million soccer stadium. When the package was unwrapped, however, there was very little inside.

We do understand Precourt’s interest in Austin: It’s a hot market. Regardless of how things turn out, the City Council would be wise to come up with some basic guidelines regarding public-private ventures that involve parkland or other assets.

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In the case of parkland, those guidelines should always require a vote by Austin residents on any deal that the council or city staff puts together, as required by the city charter. If it was understood that voters had to ratify agreements regarding parkland, it would help keep the focus on the merits of such deals.

Guidelines for any taxpayer-owned assets, including nonparkland, also should include common-sense measures that address parking and traffic, environmental issues, infrastructure improvements, potential employment opportunities and community benefits that consider the value of the asset or property along with the windfall gained by a business using tax-free public property.

Using such guidelines as a starting point for discussions would go a long way in creating a cooler, more objective climate in which to discuss public-private ventures. Had that been done in this case, Precourt surely would have known that its original request to locate its stadium in Butler Shores Metropolitan Park was a nonstarter.

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The proposed 20,000-seat stadium would have taken up the lion’s share of the park, putting it off-limits to the public for upward of 99 years. Consider that Precourt had no plan to accommodate parking. Without designated parking facilities, the disruption to surrounding neighborhoods would have been severe. The stadium would have been a traffic magnet in one of the city’s most-congested traffic corridors.

It did not help matters that Precourt’s initial offer had little in the way of community benefits for the use of city parkland. Instead, the sports venture marketed the deal as a huge win for Austin, saying it was building a professional stadium the city would own – a seemingly generous gift to Austin worth $200 million, according to Precourt. For all practical purposes, however, Precourt would be the owner of the stadium, managing it as its own private property for decades.

That plan drew protests from neighborhood and environmental activists. The final blow came from Council Member Ann Kitchen, who threatened to put a measure before the City Council that would bar all Austin parkland for consideration of a stadium. Following that, Precourt pivoted to its second choice, Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park in East Austin. It also expressed interest in nonparkland the city owns in North Austin at 10414 McKalla Place.

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This time, it has offered community benefits that Precourt says total $400 million over 25 years. In not putting that on the table initially, Precourt lost much of the shine it got at the start. That flawed strategy lent credibility to claims by opponents that the sports venture was trying to get something for nothing from the city.

That is unfortunate. It would be good for the public if Precourt and the city negotiated terms based on facts and figures rather than pointed politics. That would permit exploring whether Guerrero could accommodate a professional soccer stadium that would occupy a tiny footprint on its nearly 400 acres — and determine if it could be done without disturbing the park’s wildlife, recreation activities or environmental features. Such a discussion would examine whether Precourt could provide benefits that improve conditions of the park.

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Given the current political realities, however, the chances of building a stadium in Guerrero Park appear to be thin.

In examining whether a deal could be struck for the McKalla property, the focus should be on the impact of a Major League Soccer franchise on that corridor near the Domain, assessing not just the property’s value and physical features, but traffic, parking and infrastructure. The city also would be wise to consider whether a soccer stadium is the best fit — or, at least, a suitable one — for the property. Again, weighing gains against benefits.

It’s anyone’s guess if Precourt’s proposal can be properly vetted in the current climate, particularly ahead of an election in which the mayor and Council Member Ellen Troxclair face challenges from the left. We hope it’s not too late.

Going forward with a set of guidelines that frame the debate on professional, factual terms would no doubt help the city judge proposals on their merits instead of politics.

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