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Austin soccer stadium opponents file petition seeking May vote

(Courtesy of Gensler, TBG and CAA ICON)

AUSTIN, Texas — A group opposing the construction of a new soccer-specific stadium on City of Austin-owned land filed a petition with the City Clerk’s office Thursday, seeking a May vote on the proposed stadium. The petition drive, which the group said garnered 29,000 signatures, was funded in part by Bobby Epstein, the owner of United Soccer League Championship’s incoming Austin Bold FC, which starts play in March. 

The petition announcement — on the same day Austin FC announced a key hire, moving the franchise toward its expected 2021 launch — came from a group branding itself “Friends of McKalla Place,” named for the 24-acre plot of city-owned land where Austin FC plans to build its new home stadium. 

In August, the Austin City Council approved a deal allowing investment group Precourt Sports Ventures to finance and build a $200 million stadium at McKalla Place. PSV would then turn ownership of the stadium over to the city and become the stadium’s primary tenant. The deal between Austin and PSV was finalized last month, with construction on the stadium slated to begin later this year. 

“This deal is a poor policy decision and it places a huge burden on Austin taxpayers just so a California billionaire can turn a profit on his professional sports team,” an unidentified spokesperson for Friends of McKalla Place said in a statement distributed to media Thursday. “The lease terms were rushed through under false deadlines and a flashy PR campaign, and this giveaway of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost property taxes means local businesses, homeowners and renters will have to make up the difference.” 

The City of Austin identified the parcel of land, undeveloped since its 1995 purchase, as one of a number of potential stadium sites for PSV when discussions about the public-private partnership began. Initially, PSV sought two different underutilized parks close to the city’s downtown hub, but once those sites met with some public resistance, PSV focused on McKalla Place, near the city’s emerging “second downtown” just north of what is considered Austin’s urban core. 

Though Austin Mayor Steve Adler praised the deal as positive for Austin, calling it “the best stadium deal that anyone has gotten anywhere in the country,” opponents question the wisdom of any stadium deal involving public support. 

“This terrible stadium deal totally disregards economic research regarding the lack of long-term economic stimulation of sports stadiums and the different jurisdictions that rely on the property tax dollars that should be generated from McKalla Place,” said Dr. Craig Nazor, an Austin Community College music professor, who was one of the most vocal opponents to the stadium deal in the numerous Austin City Council meetings leading up to the vote. 

The petition drive, initially launched by the IndyAustin political action committee at the forefront of PSV opposition, has been marked with considerable controversy — including Epstein’s involvement.

Epstein announced in October that he intended to support IndyAustin’s efforts in the petition drive via a $24,000 donation, concerned the PSV-Austin deal would threaten the future of Austin Bold FC — essentially the revival of the former USL Austin Aztex franchise, which went dormant for three years after the conclusion of the 2015 season.

But less than a week later, Epstein issued a statement retracting his support after IndyAustin released an anti-Adler video featuring Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character associated with alt-right and anti-Semitic organizations. 

In November, the Fox television affiliate in Austin reported that petitioners — operating under the Fair Play ATX name — were misleading potential petition signers by telling them the petition was an effort to “bring a new soccer stadium here.” 

Epstein also gave money to the Fair Play Austin PAC, according to City of Austin documents obtained by Pro Soccer USA. Epstein made three contributions — $50,000 on Nov. 5, $17,831 on Nov. 9 and $12,156 on Dec. 3 — totaling $79,987. 

When Pro Soccer USA asked Austin Bold FC general manager Roberto Pinto de Silva for comment on the petition’s filing, he said, “The Bold take the field in two months. That’s where I’m focused.” 

Though the petition has been filed, there’s no guarantee it will make it onto the May 4, 2019, ballot, according to Austin City Council member Jimmy Flannigan.

Signatures must be checked to make sure valid signatures meet the “5 percent of the qualified voters of the city, or 20,000, whichever is less” threshold required by the City. Flannigan believes that could happen in time for the May election, but notes there may be an issue with a law requiring at least six months to pass between city elections on initiatives. Due to when first Tuesdays of the month fall, the May date is just shy of six months since the most recent city election on Nov. 6, 2018. If it is not allowed on the May ballot, the initiative would then be pushed to the November 2019 ballot. 

Additionally, there’s a question about the legality of the petition’s proposed language. Flannigan said there were questions about the legality of what IndyAustin called for in an initiative they authored for last November’s ballot. The courts mandated that what became Proposition J had to be placed on the ballot without ruling on whether or not it was legal and enforceable. Voters defeated it by a 52-48 margin. 

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