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Council approves searching city land for soccer stadium site

Friday, November 10, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

City staff will begin compiling a list of publicly owned parcels of land that could host the stadium for a professional soccer team that relocates to Austin.

City Council on Thursday approved a resolution from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo to begin the process of finding a site in the greater Austin area where a soccer club could build a facility that could hold more than 20,000 fans.

The resolution came about because of a push by the owners of the Columbus Crew Major League Soccer team to relocate the team to Austin from its Ohio location. Tovo’s resolution initially directed staff to look for city-owned land in the urban core but an amendment from Council Member Ora Houston expanded the scope of the property search to lands throughout Travis County, possibly including the Travis County Exposition Center.

The list of possible sites is due by Dec. 14.

The proposed move has raised many questions in Austin, the largest U.S. city without a major sports franchise.

Crew owner Anthony Precourt and other members of his team have said the team’s stadium would need to be located as close to downtown as possible to secure interest from investors. That position fits with MLS’s general stance that teams need to play in urban settings instead of in facilities distant from nightlife and hospitality businesses that help fans turn games into more of a community experience.

Council members spent several minutes discussing language in the resolution that would put all financial responsibility for a stadium, its maintenance and all team operations on Precourt Sports Ventures. At Tuesday’s work session and again on Thursday, Council members repeated that they would not support the use of public money to fund any part of a team’s relocation to Austin.

“If we can find a suitable site, (Precourt would) offer to bring his MLS team here and not ask for any public funding to construct the stadium,” said Richard Suttle, an Austin attorney representing the team’s ownership group locally. “The idea here is Precourt would bear the cost of the stadium. I don’t know how I can be any more broad than that. We’re not seeking any public funding to bring this team here.”

Council Member Leslie Pool proposed amending the resolution to lessen mentions of Precourt as the leading soccer group trying to bring a team to Austin to limit the appearance of the city playing favorites.

“That would ensure it doesn’t look like we’re picking winners and have the broadest application,” she said. “If we’re gonna have a professional team here … I don’t want to limit it to just one. I don’t want to preclude any other teams or options.”

One wrinkle in any use of parkland is the belief – discussed at Tuesday’s work session – that the city could offer the team a ground lease agreement that would allow for commercial use of the land without a referendum vote. In an email to the Austin Monitor on Thursday, attorney Bill Aleshire noted the city charter states the city cannot “Sell, convey, lease, mortgage, or otherwise alienate any land which is now, or shall hereafter be, dedicated for park purposes” without a public vote, or approval by two-thirds of Council for a lease to a school district for a park-related use.

During public comment, resident David King said Council should not attempt to utilize parkland without public approval of a referendum that clearly defines the terms of an agreement between the city and the ownership group.

“If we use a lease approach, I think the public would consider that to be alienation and an attempt to skirt our charter and the need for a vote to be taken,” he said. “If we use parklands for this purpose then let the residents vote on that.”

Photo by Ryan from Columbus, Ohio, USA ([1]Uploaded by Skotywa) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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