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Mayor Ivy Taylor and her supporters might be right to call for a new $75 million downtown sports venue, but baseball is the wrong sport and the 2017 bond is the wrong funding mechanism.
At the risk of facing a few fastballs to the head from those who see a field of dreams in view of the Tower of the Americas, I’d argue that the mayor and City Council should use that $75 million to create jobs and a new wave of economic development in and near the central business district.
The Wrong Sport & the Right Sport
Baseball is the sport of boys and men of a certain age. It remains popular, but no longer occupies the same place in American culture it once did. It’s a last century sport, it’s expansion days over. Those who see minor league baseball as key to a vibrant downtown are in the grip of nostalgia, especially if they think such an investment might lead one day to the arrival of Major League Baseball. It isn’t going to happen.
Soccer is the sport of boys and girls, both of whom grew up playing the game. Now, more and more young adults have become fans of “the beautiful game.” The U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup in December, defeating Japan in a game staged in Vancouver that drew a worldwide audience of 750 million and a U.S. audience that set a record for the most-viewed men’s or women’s soccer match. Soccer is a next century sport, and the U.S. market is growing fast.
Major League Soccer now has franchises in 20 cities (17 in the U.S., three in Canada) and plans to grow to 24 teams by 2020. If Spurs Sports & Entertainment, owners of the new San Antonio FC soccer team, are willing to pay the MLS franchise fee for league entry, San Antonio eventually could have major league soccer.
Franchises are thriving in Portland, Columbus, Salt Lake City and other regional cities, with average attendance exceeding average attendance at NBA and NHL games. Given San Antonio’s majority Hispanic population and its geographic and cultural proximity to Mexico, soccer is as close to a sure bet as the city will get.
Using Public Funds to Build a Stadium for Private Owners
Economists have long argued that using public funds to build sports facilities is of little benefit to anyone except the ownership group and season ticket holders. Once constructed, new sports facilities generate little in the way of good jobs or economic development in the surrounding area. The Alamodome and AT&T Arena have both failed to generate neighborhood development.
On the other hand, both venues have contributed significantly to the city’s profile, and both have brought major sporting events that otherwise would not have come here, from the Men’s and Women’s Final Four to the annual Alamo Bowl. A minor league baseball stadium is unlikely to attract events that generate the number of visitors and the kind of spending that come with college football or basketball.
As a Rivard Report story noted earlier this week, the Obama administration included a proposal in the 2016 budget it submitted to Congress that would prohibit cities from using tax-exempt bonds to finance sports venues. The Treasury Department said it was not a responsible use of municipal funds.
While the Alamodome and the AT&T Arena have contributed to the sports economy and culture of the city, that’s no argument for using scarce bond dollars to give Dave Elmore and his company, the Elmore Sports Group, a new stadium. Elmore doesn’t even live in Texas.
The Spurs ownership group, in contrast, has made considerable private investment in the AT&T Arena, and have shown themselves to be strong corporate citizens with a deep commitment to San Antonio. These are not owners who will skip to the next city for a better deal.
Elmore, on the other hand, has owned the Double-A Missions baseball team for 30 years, and he owns six minor league teams across the U.S. He has no interest in paying a share of the $75 million for a new downtown ballpark. Sure, he’ll take a free stadium and upgrade the market from Double-A to Triple-A, but what does that really do for San Antonio’s economy and job base?
The Opportunity Cost
Every student in Economics 101 learns about “opportunity cost,” generally defined as the value of the next best alternative use of the money that is foregone when a spending choice is made. In other words, what catalytic idea will not be funded if City Council spends $75 million on a ballpark?
Two vital corridor projects come to mind, each a three-mile stretch of a major street where public investment via the bond will trigger significant new private sector investment and development.
That first such corridor is Broadway from Hildebrand Avenue to East Houston Street, home to the Pearl, the Cultural Corridor, and the greatest spike in urban core growth since HemisFair ’68. Centro San Antonio has worked with a baseball consultant to identify potential stadium sites, but has not taken a position on Mayor Taylor’s proposal. Centro also is leading an effort financed by various stakeholders along Broadway to determine the cost of a redesign and the return on investment if the project is included in the 2017 bond.
The project and a related citywide ideas competition that drew nearly 100 entries were the subject of substantial coverage published in March on the Rivard Report. Build a baseball stadium and there will be no money to undertake other major downtown projects in the bond. Broadway, which has been targeted for redesign over at least three bond cycles, once again will be bypassed.
Ask yourself this question: Do you want Mayor Taylor and City Council to give $75 million to the absentee owner of the Missions if it means turning their backs on the Broadway stakeholders who live in San Antonio and have invested hundreds of millions of dollars along Broadway?
The second corridor project is Roosevelt Avenue from Mission Road to Mission San José, a long-neglected three-mile path from downtown through the World Heritage district. Roosevelt is wide and could become a showcase boulevard to the Missions, with trees and protected bike lanes making it an ideal companion pathway along with the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.
The people of this city’s Southside need to see a strong signal from elected officials that their time has come, and that World Heritage public investments will benefit people in San Antonio first, visitors second. Infrastructure investment and beautification of public spaces in the district must begin in earnest with the 2017 bond.
It won’t happen if we spend our money on folly.
Only 10 days ago, City Council was talking about a back-to-basics approach for the next five-year (2017-2022) capital budget cycle. How we spend that money over those five years is being debated and decided right now by City staff and officeholders. Mayor Taylor’s vision for a new ballpark by 2019 would slice off 10% of the expected $750 million bond.
By the City staff’s own reckoning, San Antonio has a growing deficit of infrastructure spending that now exceeds $3 billion or more in neglected streets, sidewalks, drainage and parks. Even if City Manager Sheryl Sculley were willing to increase the bond from $750 million to $1 billion, as some of us would like to see, it still would not be enough to meet current infrastructure needs — even if 100% of the bond were dedicated to the urban core at the expense of the fast-sprawling outreaches of the city.
A Bad Soccer Stadium Deal
A $75 million stadium built with public funds to house a minor league baseball team would only add to the mistakes the City and Bexar County made in November in their deal to acquire Toyota Field for $18 million from developer Gordon Hartman, an agreement that included Spurs Sports & Entertainment paying Hartman an additional $3 million. The Spurs won a 20-year stadium lease and agreed to pay the City and County $2.5 million each if an MLS franchise is not landed within six years.
The problem is public funds were used to buy a soccer-specific stadium built in the wrong place that is less than half the size of a MLS stadium. That won’t be so bad as long as it doesn’t lead to eventual stadium expansion there.
Toyota Field, now home to San Antonio FC and originally opened in 2013 by San Antonio Scorpions owner Hartman, holds 8,296 fans for a soccer match, less than half the capacity of a standard MLS stadium. It’s also located in traffic-congested northeast San Antonio off I-35. It’s adjacent to Morgan’s Wonderland, Hartman’s park for special needs children. Otherwise, there is no logical reason for it to be located where it is.
San Antonio would be smarter to let the San Antonio FC team take root in the city, and begin to lay long-term plans for building an 18,000-20,000 seat MLS soccer stadium downtown or near-downtown. Citizens would be more likely to support such a venture if it brought a major league sport to the city, and one that was well-managed by local ownership. The Spurs have given San Antonio as much or more as San Antonio have given the Spurs. Voters are far more likely to invest in the Spurs seeking a downtown MLS stadium because they are so trusted and beloved. Even then, the owners should contribute a significant sum for a new stadium. A corporate sponsor purchasing the naming rights also would help.
Toyota Field eventually can become a venue for college and high school sports events if San Antonio graduates to MLS stature. The league wants its venues located in or near downtowns. Owners of other MLS expansion franchises have born 100% of the costs of building soccer-specific stadiums. Mayor Taylor or her eventual successor should not be afraid to negotiate a deal that is good for taxpayers and good for Spurs Sports & Entertainment.
San Antonio shouldn’t have to beg out-of-town team owners to come here or stay here. We are a better city than that now, one that should be open to partnerships, but not to handouts. Let’s maximize the size and impact of the 2017 bond, and bring the city’s neglected infrastructure up to standards while funding projects that deliver a real return on investment.
San Antonio will be a better city.
This story was originally published on Sunday, April 10.
Top Image: Mayor Ivy Taylor, Missions owner Dave Elmore, and mascots Henry the Puffy Taco and Ballapeño. Photo by Iris Dimmick.