Get me rewrite on the happy headlines announcing Triple-A baseball coming to San Antonio. A more accurate prediction: Adios, Missions: City Faces Demand for New Downtown Stadium.
It was an odd development on the day Mayor Ivy Taylor handed the keys to City Hall to Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Coincidence? Perhaps. A challenge laid at the doorstep of the new mayor and City Council? Definitely.
Taylor had pushed early last year to bring Triple-A baseball to San Antonio, but her efforts to facilitate a deal lacked two key elements: an available downtown property and a public appetite to pick up the tab for a $75 million stadium.
Readers will recall that Dave Elmore, principal of the Elmore Sports Group, owners of the San Antonio Missions and several other minor league baseball franchises, declined to make any public commitment to contributing to that stadium funding.
Fast forward to the Elmore Group’s Wednesday announcement that the Missions will move to Amarillo in 2019 to play in a new, $45 million stadium. After 112 seasons of play in San Antonio and more than 100 of those seasons in the Double-A Texas League, the Missions will move up to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL).
In their place at Nelson Wolff Stadium, the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox will relocate to San Antonio, according to the Elmore press release. Don’t hold your breath. Why would Elmore move the Missions to another city and a Triple-A ballpark only to move the Sky Sox to Texas and into San Antonio’s aging Double-A ballpark?
If San Antonio wants Triple-A ball, it will need a Triple-A stadium. That would be great if the city could find an owner willing to bear a fair share of the cost. If that is Elmore, he needs to say so now.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a keen baseball player whose name adorns the ballpark on Highway 90 that the Missions have called home since 1994, was enthused by the news.
“It’s a positive step forward on Triple-A ball, a caliber of baseball that has major league players that go between Triple-A and major league, so it’s another degree of baseball. It’s great for San Antonio,” Wolff told the Rivard Report. “There may be some modifications to the stadium or an effort to build a new one. I’m not sure which way that will go.”
Wolff has suggested the current ballpark can be expanded and updated. That would still leave it far from downtown, accessible only by vehicle, and surrounded by … nothing.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, in one of his very first pronouncements since taking office, was right to contain his enthusiasm.
“As far as any new stadium is concerned, the Elmore Sports Group has not yet presented the City with a stadium development plan that includes a private investment team, nor has a specific site been selected for a new stadium development,” he said. “Until we see all of that, I have no further comment. We look forward to hearing more about their plans in the near future.”
Anyone who believes Elmore will settle for the 6,200-seat Wolff Stadium, which lies eight miles out of downtown, as a home for his Triple-A ball club is naive. It’s in the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, and it’s a dated facility. It might do for one season while a new ballpark is being built, but that’s a best-case scenario.
What is far more likely is another announcement from the Elmore Group, sometime in the coming months, expressing regret that San Antonio is unwilling or unable to deliver a new Triple-A stadium downtown.
That will force Elmore to seek another home for his Colorado team, one more amenable to spending big bucks on a stadium for a very wealthy absentee owner.
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 Center 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 and entertainment events that otherwise would not have come here, from the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four to the annual Valero Alamo Bowl.
To make a downtown minor league baseball stadium work, City officials and developers would have to position it as the centerpiece of an entertainment district that could attract locals and visitors year-round.
There are two downtown sites that could provide the seven-acre footprint needed for a new minor league ballpark: One is property owned by Weston Urban near the San Pedro Creek redevelopment project.
The second spot is the site of the current Institute of Texan Cultures at the southeast corner of Hemisfair. University of Texas System officials have solicited redevelopment proposals for the site, but those will have to include a future home for the ITC, either on the site or in a land swap.
Neither option would be an inexpensive land acquisition or lease. That still leaves the cost of the stadium itself. Some sort of public-private proposal is – in theory – feasible, but it would almost certainly have to include a substantial cash contribution from the team owners. Elmore has never indicated a willingness to write that check.
Those who follow the business of sports more closely than I do say there are other Triple-A teams that could be enticed to come to San Antonio with the promise of a new stadium, and it’s possible the owners of those franchises would make more generous partners.
One is the Houston Astros, which probably would welcome moving the Triple-A Grizzlies here from Fresno, Calif. A second supposed target would be – I’m not making this up – the New Orleans Baby Cakes, formerly named the Zephyrs, owned by the Miami Marlins, a team that is said to be unhappy in its own outdated ballpark.
It will take the City and Centro San Antonio, if the same approach is used this year as last, to assess the market, and bring a recommendation to City Council and the public. There was little to no transparency in the effort led by Mayor Taylor. Voters are far more likely to keep an open mind this time if they aren’t made suspicious by closed-door government.
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.
The loss of the San Antonio Missions and what I believe is the Elmore Group’s unstated demand for a publicly funded Triple-A ballpark will give Mayor Nirenberg and his colleagues on the Council a good opportunity to help fashion a fair deal, either with Elmore or with another owner.
Nirenberg has pledged a new level of transparency in the city government. This will be a good test. With the right private sector partners, the City and County ought to be able to assemble a plan that spurs downtown development, offers an exciting new sports and entertainment destination, and is fair to taxpayers.
If they can do that, people will invest.