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Survey, memo suggest progress on soccer stadium

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Tuesday saw two notable developments in the possible move of a Major League Soccer team to Austin, with a downtown park making the cut as a possible site for the team’s stadium.

The first happening was the release of the results of a survey – taken in mid-October – that show support among 400 likely voters for Austin as the home of a professional soccer team and the use of “underutilized” city parkland as a site for a privately funded soccer stadium.

But the likely more significant development was a memo from Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department that included the “Toomey Ballfields,” which are commonly referred to as the Butler Fields, in the Butler Shores Metropolitan Park among eight sites evaluated for possible use as a stadium site.

The other sites are a vacant Home Depot site on North Interstate 35 near U.S. Highway 183, an empty lot off Burnet Road near the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, the Travis County Exposition Center, Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metropolitan Park, Walnut Creek Sports Complex, Bolm Road District Park and Toney Burger Activity Center and Stadium.

The preliminary evaluation was requested by City Council last month after the Precourt Sports Ventures ownership group went public with its plans to relocate the soccer club to Austin. In the weeks since, its members have stated firmly that having a stadium located in the downtown core is the only scenario that would make the team successful and attract the investment needed to privately fund construction. The inclusion of Toomey Ballfields on the site list keeps that possibility in play. Some Council members including Ann Kitchen have said parking and transportation issues make a downtown site hard to execute, while others including Ora Houston and Pio Renteria have thrown their support behind a proposed sports stadium and arena for the Travis County Expo Center that at this point does not have a primary sports team tenant connected to it.

At Tuesday’s work session Council members seemed to agree to delay a vote on the issue until February, though the report may still be discussed at this Thursday’s Council meeting.

Team owner Anthony Precourt has said he wants to have the team operating in Austin in time for the 2019 MLS season. In an interview with the Austin Monitor, lobbyist Mark Littlefield, who is working on behalf of Precourt Sports Ventures, said the group will work through the city’s evaluation and approval process to find a suitable site for the stadium, which is expected to cost between $150 million and $200 million.

“There is a timeline that Precourt Sports Ventures would love to see happen, but they know they’re partners with the city, the neighborhoods around any potential stadium, and the sports fans in Austin,” he said. “No matter how much we want this to move quickly, we are committed to following the city of Austin’s process.”

The survey results show 75.6 percent of respondents support or strongly support an MLS team moving to Austin. On the issue of a possible stadium site, 57.3 percent of respondents supported having a privately funded stadium built on “city-owned parkland that sees little use currently.”

On the other side of that question, 28.6 percent of respondents disapproved of using city parkland for a possible stadium site.

The 14-question survey was conducted with 400 households in all 10 Council districts, with a 4.9 percent margin of error. It was conducted by Austin firm Opinion Analysts.

Littlefield said the survey was completed in part to gauge whether Austin consumers would show enough interest in a professional soccer team moving to the city. With the results showing a sampling of residents in favor of the team’s move, he said a series of community sessions and other outreach will take place in the coming months.

“The survey is just one tool and it’s not the closing argument,” he said. “It’s one piece in a series of community conversations that will take place as this goes through board and commissions. There will be large group and community meetings and other surveys that are done as things change.”

The survey results also suggest the public might be willing to vote in favor of building a stadium on parkland, as the city charter appears to suggest would be necessary for such a large project.

Bill Oakey, a taxpayer activist and creator of the Austin Affordability website, said a public-private partnership to build a stadium on parks property could provide much-needed funding for parks maintenance and improvements throughout the city.

“It’s a way to increase revenue for our parks, which have not received the maintenance and care they should have in recent years,” he said. “The concept is good, but the idea of a downtown location and that people would just magically get there with no parking or transit options is laughable.”

Photo by Matthew Bernhardt [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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