Editorial: A new stadium has appeal, but proposal needs more work before getting voter OK - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: A new stadium has appeal, but proposal needs more work before getting voter OK

It’s not a bad idea. In fact, it’s one with considerable appeal and worthy of consideration. It fits the definition of “aspirational.”

But while the above may be true, the proposal on this year’s ballot asking Albuquerque voters to ante up $50 million for a roughly 10,000-seat stadium to be used primarily by the New Mexico United soccer team isn’t quite ready for prime time.

Voters will be asked on Nov. 2 if they support using bonds backed by gross receipts tax revenue to pay for the project — estimated to cost at least $65 million excluding land costs — even though officials have not decided where to build it or laid out any comprehensive development plan in which the stadium is an anchor component. They haven’t openly debated whether New Mexico United has enough skin in the game compared to similar projects elsewhere.

This was a rush job unveiled by Mayor Tim Keller and other supporters at the equivalent of a hybrid sports/political pep rally at a United match at Isotopes Park in July — just three months before early voting. “You all have earned a stadium,” Keller shouted to fans from the back of a pickup truck with his picture and one of United owner Peter Trevisani on all sides. “So, New Mexicans and Burqueños, this can be our choice in November. And I know … we’re going to build a new home for the United right here in the Duke City.”

Keller made the public push days after the city received a 350-plus-page feasibility study by a private company. At Keller’s urging, the council voted 7-2 to advance the question to the ballot — but not without trepidation expressed even by some who voted yes. And at least one councilor who voted yes, Lan Sena, has questioned whether that’s the best use of the money. For that matter, the mayor, in the midst of a reelection campaign and perhaps surprised by pushback on the project, still supports the stadium but no longer prominently leads the charge.

Stadium questions aside, New Mexico United and its owners deserve credit. The team first fielded in 2019 has injected positive energy into the community and makes a good case for a soccer-specific stadium. Fans have rallied around “Somos Unidos.” It has attracted good audiences to Isotopes Park — not an ideal location for soccer — although turnout has dipped from around 12,000 in 2019 to about 7,000 this year. United holds out the potential of having a women’s professional team use the stadium as well. “This is an aspirational project that can really change so many things,” Trevisani said during a joint news conference with city leaders in September.

But aspirations and answers aren’t the same thing. In fairness, some of blanks have been filled in. The team ownership has pledged $10 million toward construction costs — not an insignificant sum but less than stadium projects in other cities examined by the Journal. (Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators have kicked in about $8 million in state money.)

One difference here is that the city would own the stadium and New Mexico United would pay $800,000 annually in base rent to be the primary tenant. The team would also have to pay the city another $100,000 per year but otherwise would keep revenue generated by the stadium outside of specific city-organized events that are allowed. The team and city have committed to work with neighborhoods. Details to follow.

Meanwhile, the city would owe an estimated $3 million annually on debt service for a term expected to last 25 years. And, contrary to assertions by the committee funded by United to push for voter approval, if the issue fails that money could be used for public safety and other uses should the council and mayor decide to do that. Stadium supporters point to the $10 million bond issue approved by voters two decades ago to help fund a $25 million makeover of Isotopes Park as a comparable example, but that was done with general obligation bonds specifically approved for capital projects.

The team’s well-funded ad campaign and proponents including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Hispano Chamber of Commerce point to Downtown revitalization potential and economic impact that would spur the local economy. But the fact is, no location has been selected. And while the Keller administration and United have indicated support for Downtown — the feasibility study looked at four sites and recommended two in the Downtown area — there is no guarantee one of those would end up being chosen. A city of Albuquerque citizen survey found 48% preferred building a soccer stadium near University of New Mexico sporting venues like University Stadium and the Pit (also the location of Isotopes Park). Only 12% favored Downtown.

And voters have learned the hard way with the proposed homeless center — for which they approved $14 million — the problems inherent in not having a chosen site. The Gateway Center has been scaled back and is still seeking necessary permits to open in a less-than-ideal location in the Southeast Heights.

As far as economic impact, a rash of studies casts doubt on the “Build it and they will come” premise. For example, a Brookings Institution report concluded that academic studies “consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facility construction and local economic development, income growth or job creation.”

Meanwhile, comparisons with minor league soccer stadium projects in other cities show Albuquerque’s is somewhat unique — but not in a good way for taxpayers.

In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, the stadium is part of a revitalization project. The owners of the soccer team in Louisville — and the team will own the stadium — committed $130 million overall with $45 million to the stadium construction to go along with $22 million in public financing. Colorado Springs is another city where a stadium played a key role in revitalization plans. The key word there is “plans,” of which that stadium was just one piece.

Another idea worth considering is an even broader proposal that would not just build a stadium but upgrade sports facilities citywide — Milne and Wilson stadiums, major parks where kids play football and soccer, construction of an overdue aquatics center in the Northeast Heights and so on.

Yes, it’s good to have nice things. Yes, Downtown Albuquerque is in need of a major boost. Yes, New Mexico United is a welcome addition to the local sports scene and needs a new home in the near future. But this proposal needs more work. And because the proposal needs to go back to the drawing board, the Journal reluctantly recommends a “No” vote.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

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