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Council discusses economic, cultural benefits of Major League Soccer in Austin

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 by Jack Craver

On Thursday, City Council will take up a resolution directing city staff to analyze whether a vacant lot at 10414 McKalla Lane would be a suitable spot for a future Major League Soccer stadium.

So far, no Council members have signaled opposition to welcoming the Columbus Crew SC to Austin or allowing the McKalla site to be used for the stadium. But some said during a Tuesday work session that they have to consider what the city is receiving and what it is giving up in a potential deal.

Council Member Alison Alter said she was likely to propose an amendment directing staff to scrutinize the more than $300 million of economic impact and “community benefits” that Precourt Sports Ventures, which owns the Crew, has promised Austin would realize over the next 25 years through a “private-public partnership” with the team.

The city needs to be cautious of claims of economic impact, said Alter, echoing studies that have shown that sports stadiums tend not to generate additional consumer spending, but rather simply redirect spending that would have gone to other entertainment options in town.

“It is not going to be a huge tourist draw,” she said. “It is not a net gain in terms of people spending in the city.”

Similarly, added Alter, the demand for construction labor generated by a $200 million stadium could also drive up local building costs and make it more expensive for the city to create affordable housing, among other things.

Alter emphasized, however, that she was not against a stadium, but stressed that the city had to make sure that numbers worked in its favor.

Council Member Greg Casar, similarly stressing that he was not against the stadium, said he would like to be able to consider “if we put a stadium there, what are we giving up.”

Although Precourt has said that the stadium would be privately financed, it’s not clear whether the company expects to pay for the land itself. Richard Suttle, a lobbyist who is representing Precourt, said Tuesday that all of those options are on the table.

Economists across the political spectrum have long criticized subsidies for sports stadiums as poor investments that do little, if anything, to boost a local economy. Nevertheless, the great majority of major stadiums in the U.S. receive taxpayer assistance; teams often threaten to leave if they don’t get financial support.

In Houston, for instance, the three major sports teams (the Rockets, the Astros and the Texans) all got stadiums at least partially courtesy of local taxpayers.

When it came to soccer, however, Houston took a different approach. Its MLS team, the Dynamo, covered the entire cost of constructing its $60 million stadium in 2012, in exchange for a commitment from Harris County to spend $20 million of infrastructure improvements in the surrounding area.

Some Council members stressed that the decision to embrace professional soccer should not be just about economics.

“The Hispanic community is really excited about the opportunity for Major League Soccer,” said Council Member Delia Garza, who said the city has not done enough to encourage entertainment geared toward the city’s growing Latino population.

Mayor Steve Adler agreed: “We don’t have too many big community events that bring in everybody.”

Council Member Ora Houston also expressed her enthusiasm for the idea.

“Football, as it’s called everywhere else, is the major sport globally. It crosses ethnic bounds and geographic bounds,” she said. “Soccer is a big deal.”

Photo by Andy Witchger made available through a Creative Commons license.

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