Group says they have the support to challenge Austin MLS with a vote

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thursday, a group calling themselves “Friends of McKalla Place” sent out an email announcing they delivered to the city clerk 29,000 signatures of Austin voters who support an ordinance that aims to challenge the deal to bring a Major League Soccer team to Austin. 

Those signatures will now have to be counted and verified by the city, in Austin 20,000 signatures must be gathered from actual voters to bring an issue to the ballot. 

If this petition is verified, it could put the ordinance up for a public vote in Austin on May 4, 2019, adding fuel to an already heated topic. 

Specifically, this ordinance is worded as an “initiative [that would require] any sale, lease conveyance, mortgage or alienation of City-owned land for a sports facility, sports arena, and/or concert stadium” to be approved by voters before giving a private, for-profit business tax free use of public land.”

The ordinance would also require a supermajority of Austin City Council members in addition to voter approval for any deal of this sort. 

While this release only mentions Austin’s MLS deal, it is unclear how this ordinance might impact other Austin events. The ordinance did make an exception for longstanding Austin events like the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the Trail of Lights, which have been going on prior to January 1, 2018.

The group behind the petition noted that this deal wouldn’t necessarily stop MLS or Precourt Sports ventures from coming to Austin.

Friends of McKalla Place framed their efforts as pushing for citizens to have a voice, though many of the people cited in the release were unnamed so it’s tough to know who exactly is a part of this group. 

“This deal is a poor policy decision and it places a huge burden on Austin taxpayers just so a California billionaire can turn a profit on his professional sports team,” representative of Friends of McKalla Place was quoted as saying. 

The release did say this group was fueled by the collective petition efforts of political action committees IndyAustin and Fair Play Austin. 

Circuit of the Americas (COTA) chairman  Bobby Epstein is a known opponent of this MLS stadium deal as well as the funder for the Fair Play Austin PAC. 

While Friends of McKalla Place did note their effort is “monetarily no match for the millions of dollars that Anthony Precourt and PSV have poured into Austin to influence the Mayor and City Council” Epstein has been making consistent contributions.  Since Fair Play Austin was created in early November, Epstein has contributed more than $80,000 to the PAC. 

Epstein is constructing a United Soccer League stadium at COTA with games set to start in 2019. 

Previously Epstein had poured his money into the IndyAustin PAC which had begun gathering signatures to oppose a stadium. However, in late October, he withdrew his funding after IndyAustin created a political video (criticizing Mayor Adler’s support of the MLS stadium deal) that showed an image of Pepe the Frog (an Anti-Defamation League-recognized hate symbol). 

After disassociating from IndyAustin, he created his own PAC shortly thereafter.

“They felt like, intentional or unintentional, for personal reasons, they did not want to be affiliated with IndyAustin after they’d made that ad,”  explained Nikelle Meade, General Counsel for Fair Play Austin in an interview back in November.  She added that Fair Play was a way to “pick up the torch” and continue efforts to challenge the stadium deal. 

Though separate, both PACS were collecting petitions for the same initiative. 

IndyAustin was also behind the petition efforts which fueled Proposition J, the signature-driven effort to bring all future overhauls of the land use development code (like CodeNEXT) to a vote. That proposition did not pass on Austin’s November ballot. 

Back in November of 2018, KXAN reported that Fair Play Austin had hired 20 paid canvassers. One of these canvassers wound up being fired in November after trying to get someone to sign the petition by incorrectly suggesting that the petition was for building an MLS stadium in Austin. It turned out, the person that canvasser was talking to was a lobbyist for PSV and caught the whole incident on video. 

Fair Play Austin said they retrained their canvassers after this event. 

The release from Friends of McKalla place comes at a time when a lot of movement is happening around Precourt Sports Venture’s effort to bring Major League Soccer to Austin and establish Austin FC as a team. 

On January 3, Austin FC announced that Andy Loughnane, who was previously the president of the Columbus Crew MLS team, would be the president of Austin’s soccer club. 

On December 28, Major League Soccer announced that the Columbus Crew team would stay in Ohio after being bought out by two families (including one who owns the Cleveland Browns). Precourt Sports Ventures was the previous owner of the Crew and this move came with the dismissal of a Columbus and State of Ohio lawsuit against PSV. 

“We are pleased with the lawsuit dismissal and the outcome that will ensure Major League Soccer teams in both Austin and Columbus,” said Anthony Precourt, CEO of Precourt Sports said at that time in a statement within an MLS press release. 

On December 19,  the city of Austin and Precourt Sports Ventures, LLC.  announced an agreement for a 20,000 seat stadium to be built on a city-owned 24-acre parcel of land located at 10414 McKalla Place. The groundbreaking for the new stadium is expected to happen in 2019 with hopes to open it officially by 2021. 

Under this agreement, if by March 1 Major League Soccer does not officially give Austin a soccer team, the deal could be scrapped.

Precourt Sports Ventures is now in the process of going through the city’s permitting department to plan out the stadium.

Under this agreement, the stadium will be entirely funded by PSV, and noted that  this deal would result in no new or higher taxes for Austinites  and $550,000 annual rent payments to the city of Austin for the duration of the lease 

Last week confirming that Austin would have its own franchise as the Columbus Crew ( who were previously owned by Precourt Sports Ventures) would stay in Columbus. 

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