Debate gets heated in community meeting to discuss MLS stadium site

While momentum builds for Major League Soccer in Austin, an emotional meeting Thursday night at Montopolis Recreation Center highlighted the hot debate over appropriate use of city property and giving public subsidies to private companies.

The last scheduled community engagement meeting, hosted by city officials with Precourt Sports Ventures representatives as the invited guests, was the farthest away from McKalla Place, the 24-acre, city-owned tract in North Austin being explored as a stadium site for the investor/operators of Columbus Crew SC. In October, PSV announced its intention to explore moving the Crew to Austin.

Yet the Southeast Austin gathering, attended by about 100 people, became contentious, unlike previous meetings, with people shouting one another down on a few occasions.

“We all support soccer, but I am not in favor of giving away land to private businesses,” Travis County Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez said. “We don’t let small businesses get breaks like this; why should we do it for bigger ones?

“We pay taxes on this property. There are other potential uses for it. If the owner wants to move here that badly, he can buy his own land.”

PSV President Dave Greeley told the audience his group will privately finance a 20,000-seat “soccer grounds” in exchange for use of the McKalla site, yet the city would retain ownership of the property. He mentioned community use of the facilities, along with festivals and concerts on site.

“It sounds like a reasonable request to me,” said Bryanna Washington. “This is a negotiation, and there’s give and take. Bringing a Major League Soccer team here could be a good trade-off.”

Susan Spataro, a former county auditor who has done work for Circuit of the Americas, came armed with a two-page, bullet-point memo, urging that any deal between the city and PSV be carefully vetted. COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein aims to launch a Division 2 United Soccer League franchise next year.

“I have attended these public outreach meetings, and we’re not getting real honest answers,” Spataro said. “We need a full list of public subsidies, a comprehensive traffic impact analysis and financial arrangements that PSV and MLS have.

“Beyond that, we need to know why this soccer deal is more important than using those 24 acres for affordable housing or creative space. And why are we rushing this?”

PSV wants an agreement in June before the City Council goes on summer break because it is on a tight timeline to move the team here for next season.

Some in the audience weren’t buying the affordable housing argument at McKalla Place.

“There are other places for affordable housing,” Washington said. “This place has been vacant for 25 years. No one’s done anything to it. Now there’s a real chance to make something of the place that a lot of people can enjoy.”

Both Greeley and Austin Redevelopment Project Manager Greg Kiloh reiterated that impact studies are being done by both sides and that PSV will make an initial proposal to the city within weeks, with the city’s full analysis of McKalla due by June 1.

Greeley revealed that the site would have 1,000 to 1,200 parking places, to which East Austinite Javier Gutierrez said, “That’s nowhere near enough. What’s their plan?” Greeley told the American-Statesman that there are about 10,000 spaces within a 20-minute walk.

Marissa Camarillo admitted to mixed emotions after hearing all sides.

“People have legitimate concerns,” she said. “All in all, it’s a great opportunity. Soccer brings diversity, and we need more of that, so it would be good for the culture of Austin and good for business.

“I am concerned that if they’re leaving Ohio for a better setup, what’s to prevent them from leaving us, too?”

Ron Wattinger, a former Del Valle school board member who lives next to COTA, doesn’t want the city to give any handouts. He said that Epstein and his group did it without city help, buying their own land and paying millions in property taxes.

“That should be the model for others,” Wattinger said.

COTA receives money from the state-generated Event Trust Fund to pay Formula One rights fees.

“There is a lot to consider,” Austin soccer supporter Keegan Bradley said, “but what I go back to is this: We’re the biggest city without a major league team. That needs to change.”

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