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A tale of three stadiums
by Ridge Mahoney, February 22nd, 2008 6:31AM

TAGS:  mls


[MLS WATCH] Don Garber is about to get his wish. Oliver Luck is hopeful. Kevin Payne is probably as confused as the rest of us. That's how the stadium game goes in MLS. Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney explains.

In order:

The league commissioner has long been a strong advocate of MLS soccer in Philadelphia, and so advanced are plans for a stadium in Chester, Pa., that the prospective ownership group and the league are drafting the necessary documents as a prelude to a formal announcement before the end of the month.

A complicated project for a stadium in downtown Houston is wedged into the political process and the Dynamo president is working his extensive governmental contacts as potential buyers of the franchise examine team and league documents.

The presumed dead-and-buried Poplar Point project has been somewhat revived but could wither away at any moment, so the D.C. United CEO is monitoring other options.

MLS hasn't religiously adhered to its stated expansion requirements: a strong and stable ownership group, preferably local; a detailed, viable stadium proposal, and attractive market.

Qwest Field in Seattle is an NFL stadium but all the other elements fell into place, and thus did the Northwest gain a team for 2009 despite an utter lack of impetus toward building a stadium.

What the league also wants and needs as much as deep pockets is a degree of political backing.

For the past year or so, Philadelphia and St. Louis had two of three elements in place. Both are desirable markets; Philly had an ownership group but no stadium plan; St. Louis has pushed forth on the stadium but needs a lead investor. Philly surged in front once city, county and state officials got behind the Chester project.

Houston and D.C. United are among the league leaders on the field and in the stands, yet their political efforts have generated mixed results.

PHILLY. More than a year after a proposal to join forces with Rowan University to build a stadium in New Jersey fell apart, MLS is perhaps just days away from announcing it will set up shop in Chester, Pa.

A minor yet important piece of the Chester puzzle fell into place Wednesday when the Delaware River Port Authority authorized the spending of $10 million for infrastructure improvements in Chester, though the monies will not be used for the construction of the stadium itself.

Three weeks ago, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved $47 million in funding for a revitalization project that includes a stadium as part of a development deal valued at more than $400 million. The city of Chester and Delaware County are committed to pay $30 million, with an estimated $80 million to be paid by private entities for a 20,000-capacity stadium.

The ownership group is headed by Jay Sugarman, CEO of iStar Financial Group, which is based in Philadelphia. The Buccini/Pollin Group, based in Wilmingon, Del., and James Nevels, founder of the Swarthmore Group, are the other primary investors.

Chester is about 15 miles from downtown Philadelphia. If construction begins this summer, as is planned, the stadium should be ready in plenty of time for the 2010 season.

HOUSTON. Setting stadiums in the suburbs, as is the case in most MLS cities, is all well and good, but the smashing success of Toronto's downtown BMO Field has reminded league executives of the possibilities.

A six-block tract in downtown Houston has been proposed by Houston mayor Bill White as a possible site. The City Council has offered $15.5 million for five acres, with an additional acre to be obtained in a swap; an acre of city land would be traded for one owned by Louis Macey, a former city councilman who runs the companies and entities that own the other five blocks.

At a city council meeting Wednesday, the proposal was tabled for a week.

A stadium deal is contingent upon the city working out an agreement with the team, and since AEG has put the team up for a sale, a possible buyer has emerged: a consortium that includes a company, Golden Boy Productions, founded by boxer Oscar De La Hoya. How much influence this group has wielded in the stadium discussions is difficult to judge.

Mayor White has refused to consider the possibility of using public funds to help build a stadium for the Dynamo, though other sports facilities -- including Minute Maid Park, home of the baseball Astros - did receive some city funding. The city is also not committed to use the land for a stadium if it purchases the tracts but can't work out an agreement with the Dynamo, no matter who owns the team.

D.C. DOINGS. As in Philadelphia, a stadium for D.C. United had been envisioned as part of an extensive redevelopment project to renovate a community blighted by poverty and crime.

Poplar Point, a 110-acre plot of parkland next to the Anacostia River, is among the poorest areas in Washington, D.C and is due for an extensive renovation. Talks about a stadium being included in a development project broke down last summer, prompting Payne and operator-investors Victor MacFarlane and William Chang to initiate discussions elsewhere. Last month the Maryland Stadium Authority commissioned $75,000 for a feasibility study of building a stadium in Prince George's County.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has announced that Clark Realty will be the master developer for Poplar Point. Clark Realty has proposed a $2.5 billion mixed-use development of which a soccer stadium is an optional component.

Fenty, who stridently opposed the use of public funds to build a baseball park for the Nationals, which for years have shared RFK Stadium with D.C. United, has revived the possibility of a facility at Poplar Point. Somewhat.

The mayor told council officials last week he is considering the use of up to $20 million a year in tax money raised by the Nationals' stadium to fund $150 million in bonds, and leasing 11 acres to provide the land for a soccer stadium.

The land is valued at $40 million, meaning Fenty - whose objection to using public funds for the ballpark while he was a councilman helped him wrest the mayoralty from incumbent Anthony Williams in an election -- is suggesting providing about $190 million.

Gauging how much, if at all, Fenty's apparent change of mind will affect the chances of a Poplar Point stadium is tricky. But any political progress, be it in Houston or D.C. or Maryland, is yet another vital element as MLS teams play their versions of the stadium game.

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