Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Stadium Support Not So United

Voters Kick Soccer Stadium to the Curb


Traditionally speaking, the other thing that divides Americans—aside from politics—is sports. It used to be that people would cheer for the professional sports team nearest their hometown and root against whatever the traditional, cross-country rival was. But sports have become even more political of late, with conservatives now railing against "woke" sports like football, basketball and baseball. (Leaving them ... professional cornhole?) Even the formation and maintenance of a professional or semi-professional sports team has become a divisive issue for municipalities nationwide, with residents debating tax issues, neighborhood gentrification and the allocation of public funds according to their political leanings.

Here in Albuquerque support for the hometown Division II soccer team, New Mexico United (part of the USL Championship), has been near unanimous. Since 2018 the team has attracted large and loyal crowds to Rio Grande Credit Union Field, a home the team shares with local Minor League (Triple-A West) baseball team the Albuquerque Isotopes. But talk of a brand-new, publicly funded soccer stadium has split Albuquerque between pro-growth, pro-business soccer fanatics and socially conscious neighborhood groups dead set against gentrification and the gifting of our city's tax dollars to millionaires. This past Wednesday, Albuquerque put the issue to a vote. And the United ended up on the losing side.

Before the United hit town, Albuquerque had several semi-pro soccer teams. In the '90s it was the New Mexico Chiles. The team was a runner up for the league title in 1995, but folded in 1996. They were replaced by the Albuquerque Geckos the very next year. By the end of 1998, however, the team moved to Sacramento. In 2014 the Albuquerque Sol was formed. It was a USL expansion team, and owners talked big about joining Major League Soccer within a few seasons. The Sol even commissioned a study in 2016 analyzing the building of a soccer stadium with 10,000 seats in Albuquerque to support the team's expansion. Three sites were identified in the Downtown area. The price tag was put at $24 to $45 million dollars. Albuquerque Sol FC played its last game in July of 2019 without ever seeing the inside of their dream stadium.

In February 2020 New Mexico United announced that it would like to develop its own home stadium and "community culture center" after being awarded $4.1 million in capital outlay funds by the State Legislature. A public poll conducted in January 2021 by Research and Polling, Inc. found strong support for the construction of the stadium, with Albuquerque residents favoring it 3 to 1. On July 25, 2021, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced a stadium financing plan that would involve selling $50 million in public bonds toward a $65 to $75 million construction cost. The team agreed to commit $10 million in upfront costs, and another $22 million in rent over the next 25 years. But as details (and costs) started to emerge, the public began to sour on the idea of giving United CEO and President Peter Trevisani a multimillion-dollar handout—even if the proposed soccer stadium is labeled "multi-use."

With roughly two-thirds of Albuquerque voters shooting the tax revenue bond down and only about a third approving of it, Trevisani and his team will have to spend another season sharing a locker room with the Isotopes.

"In considering a publicly owned, multi-use stadium for affordable fun for Albuquerque families, we felt it was important to let voters choose if they supported bonding, that would not increase taxes. Tonight, we respect the voters' decision not to do so," said Mayor Keller of the failed bond issue. "We appreciate everyone, on both sides, who took part in the vigorous conversation over the past months and showed up to decide this important issue for our city."


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