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Epstein, PSV held soccer meeting prior to McKalla proposal’s release

Thursday, June 28, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A co-owner of the Circuit of the Americas met with representatives from Columbus Crew SC owners Precourt Sports Ventures about a possible deal to use the property as the team’s new home, just prior to the city receiving a proposal from the team’s owners seeking a $1-per-year lease on city property for a new stadium.

Bobby Epstein, one of the partners in the Austin racetrack and concert facility, told the Austin Monitor that the meeting didn’t result in any progress on a deal between the two sides, with PSV soon after releasing its proposal to use the 24-acre parcel near the Domain known as McKalla Place as the stadium site for the Major League Soccer franchise.

“We’d reached out many times, early on after they started exploring Austin, then it finally happened a month ago,” Epstein said. “They want a deal where they don’t have to pay property taxes, but out here they would have to pay property taxes. There’s no need for them to have further conversations if they get free land with no taxes.”

PSV President Dave Greeley confirmed the meeting with Epstein took place on May 23, saying, “While we did have a meeting on May 23 with Bobby Epstein, we did not discuss a permanent or temporary stadium at COTA as it does not fit the requirements set forth by MLS or PSV.”

Epstein is also a partner in a United Soccer League team expected to begin play in Austin in 2019 and admitted the USL team, which is below MLS in the pecking order of U.S. pro soccer leagues, would have a difficult time competing with another team with a 20,000-seat stadium in the same market.

“You don’t need to do a study. It’s certainly not helpful for the USL team, nor is the USL team helpful to them,” he said. “We’ve got lots of local owners, all local owners with the USL team, and we’re still doing it, and it’s going to be great.”

Epstein spoke to the Monitor in response to an allegation – made in a phone conversation with the Monitor – by the head of a local nonprofit who said he’d been approached by an Epstein intermediary who suggested the nonprofit could receive “several million dollars” from Epstein in return for disavowing financial support pledged to it by PSV.

As brokering between PSV and the city over a possible stadium site has moved forward since last fall, Epstein has been rumored to be a backer of community activists and developers who oppose the stadium or have other plans on how to use the property.

Epstein denies any knowledge of or involvement in the alleged offer to the nonprofit, and said he’s “hearing all over” claims that he’s connected to anti-PSV interests. He also denies those claims.

“There’s so many things people say and attribute to me that are so false, just because I have an interest in the USL,” he said. “If they have a great proposal, that should be obvious to everyone. But these guys are trying to distract from the fact they’ve got a terrible proposal, and anyone who points that out is made out as a bad guy. Anyone who buys land or owns a business and pays their own taxes should find their proposal offensive.”

Epstein has been rumored to be backing a mixed-use proposal for McKalla from developers John Chen and Marcus Whitfield that was presented at the beginning of the month to the Gracywoods Neighborhood Association. He denied that connection as well, and Chen said Epstein is not an investor or supporter of the project in any way, though an attorney working for the pair on the proposal has done legal work for COTA in the past.

City Council will take up two resolutions related to professional soccer at today’s meeting.

One of those would direct the city manager to begin negotiating with PSV on a possible stadium agreement at McKalla, while another would have the city formally consider other mixed-use development proposals for the same site. Economic Development Department staff at Tuesday’s Council work session said that evaluation process can take several months, a timeline that could possibly blow PSV’s need to begin planning to move the team to Austin by spring 2019.

Mark Littlefield, a lobbyist for PSV, said the group has remained focused on its potential deal with the city while other interests have tried to delay or stop that process.

“We are aware, and have been aware of for quite some time, of efforts to meddle or sabotage Austin’s chance at an MLS team by certain individuals doing it for their own personal benefit, because they would benefit financially if this deal failed to materialize,” he said. “We do not know all of the different things that have been done to try to sabotage Austin’s chance, but we are very aware.”

Littlefield said no legal actions have been taken or considered against groups who oppose the 20,000-seat stadium, which would be privately financed and given to the city after construction in a move that would prevent PSV from having to pay property taxes while using the property.

“We’ve been focused on engaging the community, talking to stakeholders and focusing on our deal,” he said. “The good news is that the decision-makers are also aware of what’s going on and why they’re doing it.”

Another form of opposition materialized on Tuesday when local attorney Bill Aleshire sent City Attorney Anne Morgan a letter outlining his intent to sue the city if it agrees to a stadium deal with PSV.

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PSV also released a rendering this week of the McKalla property that showed how the site could accommodate construction of a 130-unit affordable housing complex, with an accompanying parking garage. Affordable housing has been a component of the two alternate development proposals for the site, and Precourt’s release of the rendering highlights local affordable housing group Foundation Communities as its preferred partner in creating and managing the housing structure.

At Tuesday’s work session Council members weighed in with their feelings on the current state of the pre-negotiation process.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he’d like city staff to give a rough comparison of what community and other benefits the city would be trading if it eventually reaches a deal to move forward with the stadium, rather than pursuing mixed-use development options.

While casting an eye toward executive session discussions with city staff to formulate the negotiation parameters, he urged residents and stakeholders to view the action decided on Thursday as a chance for progress rather than a final move.

“We are not making a final decision this week, which is good because the proposal that I received in my office is not one that I would approve on its face,” he said. “It is not a best and final offer, it is a first offer. I think it’s worth finding out what that final offer looks like. I’m hopeful that the community will not see Thursday as a final step over which to get frustrated or celebrate but as the next step to get all these important questions answered.”

Council Member Delia Garza shared some of her expectations on what the city would receive from PSV before she would consider voting in favor of a final stadium deal.

“I want to see the details of what PSV will bring forward,” she said. “I will not vote for something at the end that I do not think brings significant community benefits, significant, specific programs (such as) soccer programs that we have now for our youth. … You know, a scholarship fund for parks and rec to add capacity to our soccer programs. Very specific things – specific understanding of encouraging multimodal use … specific things to use it for when it’s not being used as a soccer stadium.”

Rendering of the proposed soccer stadium courtesy of Gensler, TBG and CAA ICON.

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