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Commissioner sees Houston resolution
by Ridge Mahoney, May 5th, 2008 11AM

TAGS:  mls


On a night San Jose christened its temporary home in an environment that buzzed despite a lack of goals, MLS commissioner Don Garber answered questions about the team the new Quakes replaced and its struggles to find a new home.

In attendance for the Quakes debut at Buck Shaw Stadium on the Santa Clara University campus, Garber addressed a stubborn resistance by Houston mayor Bill White to commit any city funds to a Dynamo facility despite a suitable tract of land and willingness by co-owners AEG and Golden Boy Enterprises/Brener International Group (fronted by boxer Oscar de la Hoya and his business partner Gabriel Berner) to pony up a large chunk of the money.

As a stadium project envisioned by San Jose operator-investor Lewis Wolff slowly but steadily sails through political waters, Houston is becalmed.

"We're having our challenges in Houston, but ultimately we've been through a lot of challenging stadium deals," said Garber of temporary standstills in most league cities that now feature MLS-driven facilities. "At the end of the day they get done. It's going to require a lot of work on our part and hopefully some flexibility on the city's part."

When a private letter Garber sent to persuade White to change his stance was made public by the mayor, the commissioner came off heavy-handed. Garber stated the team, which only just arrived in the final days of 2005, might be forced to move again if a project couldn't be bargained.

The letter read, in part: "while another relocation would be equally traumatic, we both must consider our options to ensure that the team has a path to economic success."

There's no way that happens with De La Hoya involved, and a record of two titles in two seasons, and raucous crowds most nights at Robertson Stadium, and Brener having a sister and brother living in Houston. Yet there's also no way Garber meant it literally.

"I didn't think that was playing fair," says Garber of the public release. "But this is a tough business we're in and the mayor is not somebody we've had a close relationship with. That wasn't a public document. For whatever agenda he had, he released it, but that's not the worst that's happened to us in my nine years as commissioner and I'm sure it won't be the worst thing going forward."

Caught in a tough spot is Dynamo team president Oliver Luck, who while CEO of the Houston Sports Authority oversaw the construction of three stadiums - Reliant Stadium (NFL Texans), Minute Maid Park (MLB Astros) and Toyota Center (NBA Rockets) - that were built partially with public funds. AEG has its own real estate division; De La Hoya and Berner are involved in real estate development and its financing. They have the expertise and the portfolios.

White opposes creating a new tax to help pay for a Dynamo facility or use of general-purpose funds. Hotel-occupancy and rental-car taxes are paying off debt service for construction of the other sports facilities.

Much of the MLS success credo is based on insisting that communities and local agencies and governments literally buy into the projects to some extent. Spreading around the cost isn't the only reason; by holding a stake, and thus a risk, in an MLS project, local governments and officials share with the team's owners responsibility for getting things done right.

"The fact that we've done well on the field and at the gate has certainly helped AEG find willing investors," says Luck.

The financials are in place, now Houston needs the political elements as well.

Through a purchase and a proposed swap agreement, the city is acquiring six blocks just east of downtown Houston that White envisions, along with necessary infrastructure and services, as its total investment. A long-term lease with the Dynamo would be negotiated. Team officials estimate the facility would cost more than $100 million.

White and the city council aren't bound to a soccer project. They can solicit bids for retail and commercial developments that would expand the downtown area and generate jobs and tax revenues. Yet city officials can't ignore teams that win titles and draw crowds like the 20,058 fans, mostly adorned in orange, who watched the Dynamo tie Chivas USA, 0-0, Saturday, and are backed by heavy hitters, so to speak.

"Oscar de la Hoya's fighting a fight right now with Dynamo colors on, so half that sale will go through and I think it's a very positive direction that we're in now," said Garber at halftime of the Quakes-FC Dallas match that also finished goalless.

De La Hoya gave the team, and maybe the stadium project, a publicity punch by wearing orange-trimmed shorts with a Dynamo logo and wielding orange gloves as he defeated Steve Forbes by unanimous decision in a bout at Home Depot Center, an ambitious project that slogged through a slew of political and bureaucratic quagmires on the way to fruition.

"We're plugging along," says Luck. "This sport is a great sport and this is a good city and it would be a shame if we didn't maximize the fact we have a very good team and can generate a buzz that hopefully will last a long time down here."

  1. David Axeen
    commented on: May 12, 2008 at 11:44 a.m.
    Off the point perhaps, but please tell us that the new Houston co-owned field will not have football lines on turf! Chalked lines on a grass field fade quickly. What we do not need in MLS is another artificial field.

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