Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The University of New Mexico’s plan for a stadium-side entertainment project has died – at least for now.
The Lobo Development Corp. board on Friday voted to end its relationship with 54 Development, the group it selected to kick-start a “sports and entertainment district” on the South Campus, despite 54’s request to keep moving forward.
The 54 team – including local businessmen Paul Silverman and Steve Chavez, and former Lobo football star Brian Urlacher – had in December 2015 signed a ground lease to build on a one-acre site just west of Dreamstyle Stadium.
But the project has yet to break ground, and the LDC board on Friday voiced a series of concerns about the site’s development. Members cited potential conflicts with Learfield, UNM’s sports marketing partner, and Levy, which sells food and drink inside the stadium and the Pit.
UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez, an LDC board member, also said his financially strapped department can ill afford to lose paid parking spots next to the stadium, especially when game attendance is already sluggish.
“I’m a proponent of trying to increase and develop this area and make more of an opportunity for people to come,” Nuñez said. “I just don’t feel that taking that corner right now is in the best interest of athletics.”
Regent Marron Lee, the board’s chair, wondered aloud if the parking lot site was too problematic and it’s time to move onto a different area.
According to the termination letter, LDC has the authority to end the lease because 54 did not submit a development plan for approval in the proscribed time frame.
In making a motion to sign the letter, UNM Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth, said UNM should also reassess its goals for the South Campus.
“It’s not an indictment against Paul Silverman or Steve Chavez or Learfield or any of the other players,” Roth said. “Life is different right now, and we’re under incredible stress financially in all quadrants of the university, and I think we probably owe it to the university community and Albuquerque to take a second and pause and kind of revisit what our plans are for that area of the university.”
The developers did not know about the potential termination until a Journal reporter contacted them Wednesday. 54 Development representatives David Silverman and J. Kyle Bodhaine on Thursday drafted a letter to UNM Real Estate Director Tom Neale expressing the team’s surprise and signaling its continued interest in the site.
“It’s important for us to convey, that not only do we remain interested in the South Campus Sports & Entertainment District project, but we’ve been awaiting direction from the University to move this project forward since August 2017,” they wrote. “As you know, we have over six figures invested in pre-development expenses, which is a very clear indication of our commitment to moving forward. After extensive negotiations, and numerous iterations of development plans, we had finally reached a plan that we believe has tremendous potential.”
David Silverman also spoke to the board on Friday, saying 54 was awaiting an amended agreement to move forward, something he said was complicated by UNM leadership changes. Nuñez started last fall, while new President Garnett Stokes began just this month. Both sit on the LDC board.
“I urge your consideration to let us have some more dialogue to move this along,” Silverman told the board.
But Nuñez and others referenced potential problems with Learfield, which has the contract to sell sponsorships at athletic venues. UNM makes about $5 million annually on the deal, but officials say Learfield raised concerns that the stadium lot development could hurt its sales.
Neale and David Harris, UNM’s executive vice president for administration, said attempts to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution with Learfield and 54 had so far fizzled.
“It was an issue that revolved around signage – 54 would have a hard time promoting their business without appropriate signage and obviously that’s a fundamental issue with them; Learfield’s position was this encroaches on our contract,” Harris said, noting that he has been told that Learfield already has “a very difficult time here generating revenue to match up against their obligation to athletics.”
Silverman said that 54 Development’s latest design – which he said was shown to some UNM representatives – would have featured just one large building and a plaza space and might have mitigated some of Learfield’s concerns and limited parking disruption.
In an interview after the meeting, he said he agrees that UNM should go through a master planning process and 54 Development would still be interested in the project later.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’ve got a lot invested and we’ve got a lot figured out, and I think we can bring a lot of value if that’s something of interest to them at the appropriate time.”