Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
As they consider putting a $50 million stadium bond issue on this fall’s ballot, Albuquerque city councilors are hearing from an onslaught of opponents characterizing the project as a poor use of public resources in a time of many more urgent needs.
The 143 pages of written public comment submitted prior to Monday’s City Council meeting pertained mostly to the multiuse stadium proposed as a new home for the New Mexico United soccer team. Critics outnumbered supporters about 13 to 1; they called the idea “reckless,” “thoughtless” and “egregious,” and raised concerns that a publicly funded Downtown stadium would displace lower-income residents while enriching a select few people. One detractor called the project “a handout for private industry that adds no value to lives of the everyday people who make up the community.”
Several commenters argued that the soccer team should use an existing public venue – including the city-owned Isotopes Park that it currently shares with the namesake baseball team – or pay for its own stadium construction. Many complained that the city has far more pressing concerns, including the instability wrought by COVID-19 and the growing number of people living on its streets.
“After nearly 17 months of enduring a major public health emergency, massive economic crisis and exasperating inadequacies of our social programs, it is tone deaf to spend millions of dollars on a new stadium,” Sydney Tellez wrote.
Mayor Tim Keller last month announced his push to get the $50 million bond question on the Nov. 2 ballot. City Councilors Isaac Benton and Brook Bassan are co-sponsoring legislation to send the question to voters. The council is scheduled to make that decision at its Aug. 16 meeting.
Benton said he is not surprised with the wave of opposition, calling it an expected reaction to “big government and big business making a deal,” but that he does not gauge public sentiment based solely on emailed comments. As Downtown’s councilor, Benton said he believes a stadium could have a positive impact but the city would have to execute a strong community benefits agreement with any neighborhood it chooses.
Bassan, meanwhile, said the negative public reaction has given her pause but that she feels an election is the best way to settle the matter.
“I am definitely questioning whether or not a stadium should be built; however, it is also more reason for me to push forward for putting this on the ballot,” she said in an interview. “Clearly there are so many opinions that go from one end of the spectrum to the other. This is something where I think each individual opinion should count.”
A few people wrote the council in support of the project, largely highlighting the associated construction activity. And four people – including New Mexico United President Peter Trevisani and the team’s communications director David Carl – advocated for the stadium during live public comment during the most recent City Council meeting.
United fan Carlos Tenorio – who said he is known as “Sombrero Man” at United games – said the city needed a stadium “for our beloved soccer team” to help the Downtown area.
“The stadium is not just for the here and now in Albuquerque but for the future – for my kids and my grandkids, and 16, 17 generations down of Tenorios that will be here in Albuquerque,” he told the council.
Keller’s $50 million bond proposal came after a Denver-based consultant completed a feasibility analysis recommending a 10,000-12,000 seat stadium that would cost between $65 million and $70 million before land acquisition costs – and even more with additional overhead canopy. The firm, CAA-ICON, evaluated four potential locations in the larger Downtown area, and identified two as “preferred” sites: Second Street/Iron and Coal/Broadway.
The consultants assumed an annual event schedule dominated by United, but also two yearly high school sporting events and two concerts, though local promoters said it would likely provide limited concert opportunities. Consultants said the stadium also could host smaller events like weddings, banquets and carnivals.
Officials say they would not pick a location until voters approve the bonds, which the city would pay off with gross receipts tax revenue. Taxes would not increase, as the city would essentially replace recently paid off bond debt with new stadium bond debt.
Several critics who wrote City Council emphasized that they are New Mexico United fans but do not think a large public stadium investment makes sense.
“While I deeply enjoy the New Mexico United games and appreciate the city’s efforts to provide family-friendly activities, I have also experienced first hand the deep economic and emotional hardships of the city’s lack of investment in other areas that affect its residents,” Italia Aranda wrote, noting that the city should instead funnel additional resources to affordable housing development or supporting families who suffered during the pandemic.
A spokeswoman for Keller’s office said the city is already investing in public safety, youth programming and homeless services but should simultaneously consider other opportunities.
“We must also look forward and invest in projects that if done right can lift up our entire state while protecting our historic neighborhoods and build an economy that works for everyone,” mayoral spokeswoman Ava Montoya said in a written statement, adding that the city already has begun conversations with the Barelas and South Broadway communities.
She said the stadium could have uses beyond United that could generate revenue, and that the soccer team would pay rent to help with bond payments – similar to what the Isotopes do.
The city, however, has not yet made any revenue projections for the proposed facility.
One resident wrote the City Council that asking voters to approve funding without saying where the stadium would go is “putting the cart waaaay before the horse,” and that the community should have more information before making a decision.
Many email writers specifically expressed concerns that a Downtown area stadium would gentrify historic neighborhoods and potentially result in displacement.
“As it is many people living in those areas cannot even afford the ticket price to see a United Soccer game,” Mercy Marrujo wrote.
One writer complained that CAA-ICON’s study did not sufficiently study the economic ramifications of the project, while another said the city must have better ideas for economic development than “subsidizing the infrastructure costs of a private business enterprise.”
“There is no silver bullet to the problems that plague (Albuquerque) and, even if there were, it would not come in the form of a minor-league soccer stadium. When businesses and storefronts sit empty all across the city, what makes anyone think that plopping a giant stadium in downtown will suddenly bring those businesses back to life or that new ones will suddenly thrive in and around that stadium,” Alex Curtas wrote. “Please, be more creative with your ideas about how to help ABQ and let NM United pay for their own stadium.”
Trevisani said United is seeking the same kind of public-private partnership that the Isotopes have at their city-owned park – an arrangement he said has proven successful and valuable for the larger community.
Ultimately, though, he said letting voters decide is the “responsible … and right thing to do.”
“Let’s see what the public has to say,” Trevisani said in an interview. “We live in a big city, and it’s diverse. I think we’re looking forward to hearing from everyone and seeing how voters feel about it in November.”