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Soccer stadium deal challenged by citizen petition

Group calls for public vote

Overhead rendering of an open-roofed stadium Courtesy of Gensler via MLSATX

Austin Major League Soccer fans (which are legion, or at least loud) were by and large pleased with the outcome of last year’s negotiations between Columbus Crew owner Precourt Sports Ventures and the city to build an MLS stadium and the decision to do so on a city-owned tract in North Austin called McKalla Place. None of the parties was daunted by the news that the Crew, which Precourt initially planned to move to Austin, would be staying in Ohio. And when the deal was sealed in December, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman in December, there was much rejoicing (some of it hard to distinguish from holiday-season celebration unrelated to the beautiful game, but no matter).

Now a group called Friends of McKalla Place has filed a petition to put the matter to a citywide vote in May. On Thursday, according to the group’s press announcement, it delivered a petition signed by 29,000 voters to the city clerk, calling for 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 moving forward.

Under the current agreement, PSV will build and pay for the 20,000-seat, $225 million stadium (including the payment of related taxes and fees) and have a 20-year lease withthe city. Precourt will not pay rent for six years, after which it will pay $550,000 annually and provide $3.64 million in funding for transit facilities over 15 years to Capital Metro. PSV will not pay property taxes during the lease period.

Who is Friends of McKalla Place?

Friends of McKalla Place is an “informal, grassroots organization that believes taxpayers should have the right to vote on use of public land for private profit,” according to its press release. Specific-purpose political committees IndyAustin and and political action committee Fair Play Austin paid temporary workers to assist with collecting petition signatures.

According to a November Statesman story, Fair Play Austin was formed to oppose the McKalla stadium deal and is funded by Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein, majority owner of Austin Bold FC, which plays in the second-tier professional United Soccer League. The USL team plans to begin play in spring of 2019 in a new 5,000-seat stadium under construction at Circuit of the Americas.

Why do opponents want residents to vote on the deal?

Friends of McKalla Place cited several reasons for filing the petition, including what it alleges as the lack of a “proper RFP [Request for Proposal] process” and that “several developers expressed clear interest in paying fair market value for the land and paying all requisite property taxes.”

The group also charges that the city failed to consult other entities who collect taxes on city land—including Travis County, the Austin Independent School District (AISD), Austin Community College, and Central Health—describes the deal “one of the single largest corporate welfare packages in Austin’s history,” and decries what it callas a lack of “transparency and accountability to taxpayers.”

What’s at stake for the city and Precourt?

According to the December Statesman story, the stadium contract “states that Precourt can pull out of the deal with no penalty if any voter referendum or initiative is passed that PSV determines would undermine the project” and could also pull out if the Travis Central Appraisal District rules that the stadium site is taxable.

The daily also reported that IndyAustin launched it petition effort in September, a month after the City Council approved the basic terms of the deal and directed City Manager Spencer Kronk to finalize details and sign the agreement with PVS. According to the Statesman, City Council Member Leslie Pool has expressed concerns that the contract that also allows Precourt to cancel the lease if MLS does not authorize a team in Austin by March 1. Pool represents District 7, which includes McKalla Place.

City, Precourt Sports Ventures ink contract for Austin MLS stadium [AAS]

Paid canvassers caught giving bogus info about soccer petition [AAS]