Grumet: Don’t disparage the ‘Anti-$100 Bill Coalition’ in soccer debate

Precourt Sports Ventures wants to build a Major League Soccer stadium on this city-owned tract at McKalla Place. JAY JANNER / American-Statesman

I know it’s a popular sport to joke about the passionate level of civic engagement at Austin City Hall, especially when ideas get bandied between advisory groups for months on end and City Council meetings run till 3 a.m.

But we should cheer for the smart, inquisitive people who make the time to attend public meetings, read up on various proposals and ask tough questions, especially when taxpayer dollars are on the line. They make our city better.

I was disappointed Thursday evening when Precourt Sports Ventures lobbyist Richard Suttle, speaking to a roomful of people at the Central Library about the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Austin, drew an unfortunate analogy to the city’s reputation for civic engagement.

“Overwhelmingly this is a popular deal,” Suttle said of the MLS proposal, still being negotiated, in which Precourt would pay $1 a year to use city-owned land for a stadium but wouldn’t pay any property taxes on the venue. The franchise promises to provide other perks and regional economic benefits.

“Now, there are some folks that have questions,” Suttle continued. “And in Austin, I tell the story that if we decide we’re going to give out $100 bills on Congress Avenue on Saturday for free, no strings attached, the Anti-$100 Bill Coalition will be formed by tomorrow, and we’ll have discussions on what that would look like.”

Editorial: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Some folks in the crowd chuckled. A few people booed. One woman yelled out, “That’s very unfair.” I shared her sentiment.

I’d love to see Austin have its own MLS team, and I see the tremendous potential for it to bring different parts of the city together. But residents are right to ask serious questions about the financial cost to the city, the impact of traffic and parking on the neighbors, and the tradeoffs other cities have experienced when a pro sports team comes to town. 

These residents shouldn’t be likened to naysayers who can’t even see the good when it’s raining Benjamins.

Suttle told the crowd, and later emphasized to me, that wasn’t his intention.

“All I mean by that is that we have a robust city where we like to talk about stuff, and that’s a healthy thing, because we always end up with a better solution when we have everybody in the room, everybody talking,” he told the crowd.

He told me the “Anti-$100 Bill Coalition” was “meant to be the most absurd example” of community feedback, not a commentary on the soccer stadium critics.

Commentary: MLS stadium deal should score points for the community

In fact, Suttle said he left the meeting with a to-do list based on the concerns residents raised Thursday evening.

“I heard loud and clear that the neighbors that live within a mile of the place, a mile east on Braker (Lane), are concerned about people parking in their neighborhood and walking to the stadium,” Suttle told me. “What that means is I’ve got to go find the model on how they solved that in the neighborhoods near Zilker Park for ACL.” Additionally, Suttle said he recognizes Precourt needs to provide a specific plan for parking. The current site plan has only 1,000 parking spaces for a stadium that will seat 20,000.

He also took note of concerns one resident raised about drainage and water quality, as the McKalla tract is near the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek. One speaker wanted to see more details on the perks for youth soccer; another wanted to see Tejano music incorporated into events at the site; another suggested the deal include a clear cap on the city’s financial contributions to the venture. All duly noted, Suttle said.

The most recurring criticism I heard Thursday evening, though, is that Precourt wouldn’t pay property taxes on the stadium, which would be built by the franchise and then given to the city. One estimate puts the unpaid property taxes at $5 million in the stadium’s first year, including roughly $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. 

Kind of the opposite of handing out free $100 bills to the public.

Precourt is still negotiating other financial terms with the city, with the goal of bringing a proposed deal to the City Council Aug. 9.

But a word of advice: Listen to your critics. Use their concerns to make your proposal better for Austin. And leave the absurd analogies at home.