Which Way Will Austin Swing? Ninth Inning, 3 and 2

Home By the River

One thing that can be looked at - going back to the grey beginnings of the stadium proposal - is the selection process of the stadium site itself. After examining several possibilities, says Heitz, proponents selected Colorado River tract adjacent to the Pleasant Valley Sportsplex, near Riverside east of I-35, to be called the Colorado River Park. But while supporters - including Reynolds and Mayor Bruce Todd - have hailed the stadium as a rejuvenator for beleaguered Southeast Austin, many have questioned the location of the ballpark. Most of the park land is owned by Trust for Public Land, a non-profit group which is holding it in reserve to sell to the city. But Firebird President Larry Yount happens to own land next to the proposed site, land that has been marked "future development" on team maps. That has aroused understandable suspicion, but Heitz says the city was already in the process of purchasing some land from Yount or trading it for other parcels long before it was known the team might move here. Early stadium booster Ray Benson, the local musician and co-chair of Supporters of the Park on the Colorado, which has funded the stadium promotional campaign, says he suggested the site to Yount without knowing he owned property there. "[The site] was my idea," he says, "this was not Larry-Yount-get-rich-quick-deal."

Even if one accepts the location as merely fortuitous, there are still the added costs of providing new roads and services for the stadium - which have been estimated at $3 million, ($2.5 million for roads, $500,000 for utilities), above and beyond the already $22 million stadium. Before San Antonio built their new Wolff Stadium for the Double-A Missions ball team, says stadium manager Jim Mery, "We did a study for all different types of locations," looking for a place where the city would "not have to build roads, not have to bring in city utilities," and he adds that such a location was a key point in placing public funds behind the venture.

Heitz says Austin did the same, looking at land next to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Headquarters; a different tract along the Colorado; a lot on I-35 and Fifth Street which Capital Metro owns; and even the Robert Mueller Airport land, "which would have been perfect," Heitz says, except that it won't be vacated in time for stadium construction. (Bergstrom is expected to begin operations in late 1998; the Firebirds hope to play here in 1997, before Phoenix gets a major-league franchise in 1998.) Fine, say critics - "If we have to wait two years for Mueller to be available, let's wait," says Haden. "So that means the Firebirds can't come here - so what? We never heard of the Firebirds two years ago." An intriguing prospect, to be sure - and, as reported in these pages - the city will retain ownership of the Mueller property, and does not yet know what will be done with the land.

But Heitz says Capital Metro is negotiating with the team to pay the $2.5 million necessary for the access roads in exchange for parking spaces in the complex. Despite information printed in the Statesman's Wednesday editorial in favor of the bonds, Capital Metro has not yet agreed to that deal. But if they do, Heitz says, the city may actually save some money, in a sense, since Lakeshore Boulevard was scheduled for extension anyway. "If the stadium doesn't happen," he says, "then some time in the future, five, 10 years from now, we're going to have a bond issue to pay for Lakeshore Blvd."

The Stadium Bill

There may be no formal contract to examine, but a preliminary document called the "Memorandum of Understanding" has been signed by city and team officials, outlining management responsibility and the revenue split between the city and the team.

Under the agreement, the city and the team, calling themselves the "Austin Swing," would enter into a 30-year lease contract, with options for the team to withdraw at the 20- and 25-year mark. In exchange for the public investment, the city gets 7% of ballgame gate receipts; 25% net proceeds from concessions; 10% net proceeds from parking revenues; and 50% net proceeds from ticket, concessions, and parking revenues at all non-baseball events. A Coopers and Lybrand viability study commissioned by the city indicates that the stadium can reasonably be expected to generate $1-1.5 million annually, even with a restricted concert slate of 10 shows averaging 10,000 apiece in attendance. Based on that, Coopers and Lybrand estimate the total annual revenue for the city to be $200,000-400,000 a year, and Firebirds General Manager Greg Pletenik confirms that figure.

The city would also receive $350,000 a year in rent from the team, but this amount would go toward operation and maintenance costs, estimated to be $500,000 per year by Coopers and Lybrand. If their figure is accurate, it means the city will never see a cent from leasing fees; however, it will not have to pay anything on top of this, since the team will cover cost overruns.

The bottom line: Since Austin's annual debt payment for the bonds is estimated to be slightly over $1 million per year for the next 20 years, the city will probably have to come up with at least $600,000 per year to cover the debt service.

How Do We Compare?

In comparison with other cities building or rebuilding stadiums, Austin's deal looks pretty fair, if you can stomach public funds for a private baseball league at all. Take, for instance, San Antonio, which two years ago paid almost $10 million ($7.5 million of that in certificates of obligation) to build Wolff Stadium, using the same architects the Firebirds plan to use - Kansas City-based HOK Sports, who also designed the Ballpark at Arlington and Baltimore's highly regarded Camden Yards stadium. San Antonio owns the 10,000-capacity (including bleacher berms) stadium and receives $100,000 a year in lease money from the Missions. The city has total control of non-baseball event bookings and reaps the lion's share of those profits as well. "The bottom line," says Jim Mery, who manages the stadium for San Antonio's Parks and Recreation Department, "is the Missions rent the facility. It was our money, so we wanted control of the facility and how it's run." Seems like a wonderful deal: having control of the stadium's alternative events booking and reaping almost all the profits therefrom. Yet San Antonio also has to foot the bill for operation and maintenance costs, which Mery estimates at about $500,000 - approximately the amount the city sees in revenues. "We've shown that we can pay our bills, excluding debt service," he says. "The city handles that."

Thus, while Austin sacrifices total control of the stadium for the life of the 20-30 year lease, at the end of that time it will own the $22 million stadium for less than $10 million, with help from the annual revenue. (However, if you factor in interest payments over 20 years, Austin's bond price tag will be between $25-30 million for the stadium, but why quibble?) San Antonio, meanwhile, will own a much smaller stadium, having paid for the whole thing and possibly lost money in the process. (Though it should be pointed out that for both cities, the end of debt service payments may only signal the beginning of costly renovations.)

Yet is it possible, in today's world of sports franchises cutting from one city to the next faster than free-agent sluggers, for a city to actually get a stadium for free? The city of Norfolk, Virginia, may have come the closest in the deal it struck with its Triple-A team, the Tide (affiliated with and owned by the New York Mets).

When it became apparent that the Tide's old ballpark needed renovations several years ago, the city decided it wanted to go a step further and build a whole new one. Yet the city wanted certain concessions from the team so that it wouldn't burden itself with a huge bond debt service. In response, "the management company who ran the team tried to shop the stadium to outlying cities," says Earl Swift, a business writer who covered the transaction for the Virginian Pilot. But those cities balked at the team's $20 million price tag for a new stadium, "so the Mets came back to the city and said, `Okay, let's talk'," he says.

The city agreed to foot the bill for the whole $13 million stadium they originally planned, but "Norfolk extracted from the Mets a promise that they'd guarantee rent to the tune of $1 million a year, plus a cut of parking and revenues, with no operating budget, no public outlay of funds every year." Essentially, what Norfolk got was a guarantee that the team would give them enough money each year to cover the service of its debt. "Basically," says Swift, "Norfolk got a brand new ball stadium for as close to free as you can get." Swift adds that "it was an unusual situation in that rarely do you find a city that gets that good a deal." Yet it was not without opposition - up to the last minute, he says, there was a protest group gathering signatures to kill the deal, which was struck by the city council without voter approval. This opposition "was mostly from people who didn't understand the economics of the stadium," says Swift.

Can They Draw the Crowds?

The main factor that will have an effect on revenues is ballgame attendance. To get even $400,000 back a year, according to Coopers and Lybrand (and confirmed by Pletenik), the team must draw 450,000 fans a year, or 6,300 a game. This seems to be a reasonable expectation, since San Antonio's Double-A Missions have been able to average 400,000 at a much smaller venue in the two years its stadium has been open (which incidentally places it among the leaders in Double-A attendance, second only in 1994 to Michael Jordan's Birmingham Barons).

Pletenik is optimistic that the Firebirds can exceed the attendance numbers listed in the study; Salt Lake City, he points out, recently built a new Triple-A stadium (Franklin Quest Field) similar in cost, design, and capacity to the one planned for Austin. They unveiled the stadium last year and saw attendance better than 700,000. Norfolk's Harbor Park has done well over 500,000 in the two years it's been open.

Yet the Firebirds actually play in a new stadium now - also designed by HOK Sports and similar to the one proposed for Austin, except that it doesn't have an upper deck or the two private clubs Austin's will - and they haven't done nearly that well.

Their stadium has a capacity of 12,000 and was actually built as a spring training facility for the San Francisco Giants, Phoenix's major-league affiliate; the Firebirds' playing there "was an 11th hour deal," according to Bob Lenard, the city of Scottsdale's manager of the stadium. After moving to the stadium in 1992, the Firebirds' attendance languished at around 250,000 a year, until last year when it climbed to approximately 315,000 - which still ranked only 24th out of 28 Triple-A teams. Lenard claims that even the 315,000 figure is bloated with the attendance of fans who received free tickets through team promotions, since the city would have seen some revenue if these had all been paying customers. "The only way the city of Scottsdale would get any ticket revenues," he says, "is if the team gets over 250,000 in total paid attendance - and they've never done that." The Firebirds began their tenure as Scottsdale tenants with a modest $10,000 annual lease agreement, Lenard says, but "last year it was renegotiated to about $62,000.

"The Firebirds were not the big economic boon everyone thought they were going to be," he continues. "The city was having to help them out a lot."

This is disturbing news indeed, but the fact is it's difficult and even misleading to try to extrapolate possible Swing attendance from that of the Firebirds - even allowing for Phoenix's much larger metropolitan population. The size of the city, in fact, may help explain the Firebirds' poor attendance - they may simply have been overlooked and forgotten in the big city, especially one which also includes a professional basketball team (the Suns) and football team (the Cardinals), and is now anticipating the arrival of its own major league baseball team (the Arizona Diamondbacks). "The Firebirds have a real tough sell here," confirms Lenard. "They just have a slew of competition."

Then again, the Firebirds' inability to draw consistent crowds may be due to the oldest reason in sports: mediocrity. They're simply not that good. The team hasn't had a winning season since 1987 and in fact has a long and storied tradition of losing. Things may change, however; Pletenik points out that the Pacific Coast League, in which the Firebirds currently play, is not thrilled with the travel costs its teams will incur visiting Austin, especially since some of them will have to come all the way from Canada. Naturally, Firebirds staff relish the thought even less, and Pletenik, while unable to drop anything more substantial than the ghost of a hint, has indicated that the Firebirds may switch affiliations if the move takes place, which would mean a whole new stable of athletes. (The two most likely big-league suspects, of course, are the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers.)

Multi-Use: &nbs; Dangling the Carrot

Since the Firebirds will take care of operation and maintenance costs and responsibilities, they will also control booking of the stadium for all non-baseball events - everything from outdoor concerts to bar mitzvahs to high school soccer games. Even though the city will not control alternative events scheduling or get most of that revenue, many of those familiar with the city's track record in operating large-scale projects such as this one don't rue the loss of control. "Let me ask you this," says stadium booster Ray Benson, "do you want the City of Austin booking concerts?" Notwithstanding the fact that the city already does so at Palmer Auditorium, the City Coliseum, and Auditorium Shores, the point remains that their expertise might be, shall we say, better utilized elsewhere.

Still, one of the biggest selling points for stadium boosters has been the idea that it would be a place for music and community activities. Team officials have offered to build seven soccer/football fields for city youth team use and say the ballpark grounds could be used for cookoffs, garage sales, and other community activities. Dangling the community involvement carrot is a favorite pastime of boosters looking for public funding, but will it fly? It's not clear how the city would be able to monitor or enforce such an offer since the the team, not the city, manages the facility. Pletenik says the team would expect the community organizations involved to cover only the operating costs while using the stadium; city sports league participants are typically charged similar fees anyway. "You couldn't have Little League games," Pletenik says, because the diamond is too large, but "I see high school football, NCAA regional games" being played there.

Firebirds owner Martin Stone has already made overtures to AISD about using the facilities. An item was placed on the school board's agenda last week to approve going ahead with negotiations, but the board declined to negotiate before the voters make their decision October 7. The board's decision to hold off apparently didn't faze the pro-stadium group, Supporters of the Park on the Colorado, which sent out an eight-page mailing last week describing the stadium as a possible "home to many youth and amateur sports, including high school football games."

As for the stadium as a major music venue, the Firebirds have been careful in the design stages to avoid the acoustic and logistical nightmares many outdoor stadiums pose for musicians. But concerns over wear and tear on the facility linger. San Antonio's Wolff Stadium was also built for multi-use, but Mery says they've only tried to hold one major concert there over the summer and "I don't think we'll do it again... We had 22,000 people out there and it really put a hurt on the stadium." He adds that "we probably have three months down time from November to January when it's just too hard to do anything" because of the weather. That leaves a brief window for major concerts, from the end of baseball season in September to November. Pletenik admits the team will most likely adhere to that window, and avoid major events while baseball is in season for the sake of keeping the field in shape. "We're looking conservatively at three major concerts a year and eight to 10 smaller concerts a year," he says. (Major concerts would draw over 10,000, while the smaller ones would draw 6,000 or fewer.) South Park Meadows, by comparison, held 12 major concerts last year averaging 20,000 in attendance, and their peak concert season runs from April to October.

The Intangibles

There is also, argue stadium supporters, the indirect financial impact a stadium would have on Austin. The Coopers and Lybrand study indicates that the city stands to gain over 400 jobs from the stadium; over $4 million from expenditures related to construction; and a whopping $9 million-per-year injection into the local economy from fans dropping money at the stadium for games, grub, and concerts - although the validity of calling this "new money," the study notes, is debatable, since people might spend that money elsewhere on entertainment whether the stadium is there or not.

But then there's the pure prestige of having a pro sports team in town. There's certainly no canceling that out of the equation, is there? The testimony of Scottsdale stadium manager Lenard in this respect sounds downright jaded: "You never hear about what these teams bring to town - all you hear about is the goody-goody stuff," he says. "You don't hear about the increased traffic, the higher taxes..." Amen, say stadium opponents. "We're trying to bend over to make it work for the Firebirds," says Haden of Priorities First! "Let's make it work for Austin." n Early voting in the city bond election started September 18 and will continue through Tuesday, October 3. Call 499-2211 for info on polling locations. Election day is Saturday, October 7.

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