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Austin mayor believes petition opposing soccer stadium won’t derail 2021 MLS launch

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, center, speaks with Austin Mayor Steve Adler during an event about Apple's new campus announcement in Austin, Texas, Thursday, Dec, 13, 2018. Apple plans to build a $1 billion campus in Austin. (Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

The plan to build a soccer-specific stadium for future Major League Soccer team Austin FC won’t be derailed by a petition filed Thursday by stadium opponents, according to Austin mayor Steve Adler and Richard Suttle, the lawyer who represented Precourt Sports Ventures in stadium negotiations with the City of Austin.

Even though the city’s legal team hasn’t officially opined on the petition’s language yet, Adler told Pro Soccer USA in an exclusive interview Friday that he believes it is already “too late” for a petition to stop progress on the stadium plan. 

Suttle, who served as liaison between PSV and the City in securing City Council approval for the plan in August, issued a statement for PSV Friday saying, “The petition does not impact Austin FC. The lease is signed and the plan for the stadium has been filed. We look forward to bringing Major League Soccer to Austin.”

Austin FC is slated to begin MLS play in 2021, according to recently-hired Austin FC president Andy Loughnane.

The petition drive, funded in part by Bobby Epstein, owner of incoming United Soccer League Championship team Austin Bold FC, seeks a “public vote on an ‘ordinance by initiative [that would require] any sale, lease conveyance, mortgage or alienation of City owned land for a sports facility, sports arena and/or concert stadium’ to be approved by voters before giving a private, for-profit business tax free use of public land,” according to a statement from a group called Friends of McKalla Place. 

McKalla Place is the 24-acre plot of land in North Austin where the stadium would be located.

Though the group identifies as “an informal, grassroots organization,” it also acknowledges that Political Action Committees Indy Austin and Fair Play Austin — which received over a combined $100,000 in donations from Epstein in the fourth quarter of 2018 — “assisted in collecting signatures for the petition using temporary workers.”

The deal between PSV and Austin was officially signed Dec. 19, 2018, two weeks before the petitioners turned in their signatures.

Adler said even if the petition signatures check out, there could not be a vote on what the petition calls for before Nov. 5, 2019. That is because the City Charter dictates six months must pass between special elections (to be held on the first Tuesday in either May or November), and the first Tuesday in May falls several days shy of the special election run concurrently with the general election in November 2018 — confirming what Austin City Council member Jimmy Flannigan told Pro Soccer USA Thursday

He also said of the current Austin FC stadium, “This project has already launched, and by the November election, it will have probably already moved through the City.” Adler added the City Council will have to approve several elements over the summer in advance of the actual construction start.

“We’ll be through that process well before November,” Adler said. “But even if not, I don’t see the petition impacting this at all.”

He went on to voice concern about the petition’s scope, in that it targets prospective new entertainment as well as sports venues. Even though it wouldn’t affect Austin FC, he encouraged Austin voters to reject the ballot initiative that may result from the petition drive.

He also characterized the petition as primarily serving the business interests of Circuit of the Americas, the Formula 1 facility where Epstein is a founding partner and where the Bold are slated to open USL Championship play this coming March in a 5,000-seat stadium being erected on the COTA grounds. 

As for the petitioners’ aims to extract more taxes from PSV, Adler said, “The City doesn’t decide whether the property’s taxed or not. And the City has not granted the soccer folks any exemption from taxes. Whether or not they get taxed is an issue between them and the State [of Texas]. The City doesn’t have a vote in that. There’s no ordinance that the City could pass that would make something taxable that’s not taxable under state law.” 

Adler emphasized the deal between PSV and Austin does not involve a tax exemption, but rather an agreement to let PSV build a stadium on City-owned land, gift the stadium to the city and then lease it. Adler said taxability of a stadium depends on whether it’s considered constructed for public use or not. Based on precedent involving what is now known as Globe Life Park in Arlington, the Texas Rangers’ home stadium, Adler believes the future Austin FC stadium would be considered a public-use stadium. 

Austin FC, on the heels of team’s hiring of Loughnane as club president Thursday, announced a core front office staff Friday that included Austin-based former MLS player Tyson Wahl as academy general manager and a mix of Austin community engagement specialists and former Columbus Crew SC employees in a variety of roles from business to groundskeeping.

“I’m excited to have them here,” Adler said of the new Austinites. “I’m excited to have a Major League Soccer team here, in a city that’s one of the best TV markets for World Cup soccer, even without a [pro] team.”

Adler also repeated his vision — which he discussed while working to garner support for PSV leading to the August City Council vote — of the team being a positive force that will bring socially-segregated segments of the community together. 

 

 

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