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Lawmakers hear pitch for soccer stadium in Albuquerque

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Muralist Noé Barnett paints a New Mexico United mural on the side of a building at Coal and Second on Thursday. The United averaged about 13,000 fans a game in its inaugural season, top in its league. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Civic pride – not dollars and cents – emerged as the dominant theme Thursday as New Mexico legislators began debating whether to help build a publicly funded soccer stadium in Albuquerque.

Supporters of New Mexico United, a professional soccer team that now plays in the city-owned Isotopes Park, described their desire for a permanent home as something more than just an economic transaction.

It would be a way to show off New Mexico culture to fans of a global sport, supporters said, and a chance to harness the power of local artists to build a broader cultural attraction.

Peter Trevisani, president and CEO of New Mexico United LLC, told lawmakers that the team’s first season drew fans at a greater rate than the Miami Marlins, a major league baseball team. The United, he said, averaged nearly 13,000 fans at home games this year. According to ESPN, the Marlins’ home average was about 10,000 in the 2019 season.

United sold its Meow Wolf-sponsored jerseys to customers as far away as Germany and Turkey, Trevisani said, and its games brought people together from across the state.

The franchise “is authentically New Mexican,” said Mark McCullers, a business consultant working with New Mexico United. “Sports create a platform for communities to showcase their assets and their personalities.”

Thursday’s discussion was just the beginning of what’s expected to be a debate that continues into next year’s legislative session. Supporters are expected to seek about $30 million in capital outlay funding from the state, though there was little talk of finances Thursday.

The project’s total price tag could hit $100 million, with the participation of other government agencies.

Lawrence Rael, right, COO for the City of Albuquerque, presents a New Mexico United scarf to Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, during a meeting at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Lawrence Rael, Albuquerque’s chief operating officer, said the financing of Isotopes Park could serve as a model of sorts for a new soccer stadium. The park is owned by the city, but the Triple-A baseball team pays rent – among other funding sources that helped pay for reconstruction of the park.

The arrangement has been so successful, Rael said, that the city should be able to pay off the debt two years earlier than expected, in 18 years, not 20.

But he said careful thought should be put into where to locate such a stadium, including gathering input from community leaders. The rail yards, Downtown area and Sawmill district have all been broached as possibilities.

The soccer stadium idea got a largely favorable reception among members of the legislative Economic and Rural Development Committee. Only Democratic legislators were present when the presentation – near the end of the day – happened at the Capitol.

Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque said he isn’t much of a sports fan, but it’s important, he said, to build places that New Mexicans enjoy and provide an incentive for young people to stay or return to where they grew up.

“If we’re going to change the trajectory of this state,” Candelaria said, “we have to focus on what means most to us. There’s a magic to this place that keeps us all here.”

Sen. Bill Tallman, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired city manager, said he supports the concept of a soccer stadium, but that it’s unrealistic to expect such a project to be financed without a public subsidy of some kind.

“If these things were profitable,” he said, “they’d be built by the private sector.”

Trevisani described the project as much more than a soccer stadium and home for New Mexico United. It could feature restaurants, a zip line, murals by local artists and other features that attract people at all times of day, not just for games.

The stadium could also house other teams, perhaps aiding in the recruitment of a women’s professional team or even allowing the United to move up to Major League Soccer, the top professional league for soccer in the nation.

New Mexico United now plays in the United Soccer League, the second-highest level.

Its attracted average home attendance of 12,600 people is tops out of 36 teams in the USL.

“It’s really brought our community together in a way I’ve never seen before,” Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque said.

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