Elk Grove eyes $100 million stadium as economic catalyst

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 - 11:38 pm

Elk Grove is shooting for a major league goal of building a $100 million soccer stadium filled with 18,000 screaming fans.

In an effort to land a Major League Soccer expansion team, the Elk Grove City Council on Wednesday will discuss building a stadium and tournament fields on 120 acres near the half-finished regional mall in southeast Elk Grove.

The stadium and franchise plan pits Elk Grove against Sacramento in a race to get an MLS team. Sacramento gained a lower-division United Soccer League team in December, with an eye toward transitioning to a plum MLS franchise.

Elk Grove council members will vote on directing staff to nail down a stadium site and gauge public interest in using city money. The city has not identified a revenue source.

Elk Grove officials see the proposal as an economic driver and a catalyst to finish construction of the abandoned Elk Grove Promenade mall.

In the first year of operation, a soccer stadium could reap $15 million in new spending at city restaurants, stores and hotels, according to a feasibility study by Convention, Sports & Leisure International of Plano, Texas.

Local soccer fans see it as a welcome addition in a region that has only one major league sports franchise, which is threatening to leave.

"We would definitely love having a Major League Soccer team here in Elk Grove," said Casey Tiner, manager of the longtime Elk Grove store Soccer City. "We only have the Kings right now, and they're having their issues. We want another pro team to root for, to get excited about and for kids to look up to."

Elk Grove's council members will hear a report from a consultant on the fiscal realities of building a stadium, economic benefits to the city and market potential of attracting a professional soccer team.

If the City Council likes what it hears, potential investors could start lining up behind the stadium and revenue talks with soccer league officials could get more serious.

Elk Grove soccer supporters say a new team could kick off play in the youth soccer-fueled market as soon as 2014.

While the league has been clear it wants the next team to be in New York, the Sacramento market is on the league's radar, said representatives from dueling ownership groups in Elk Grove and Sacramento.

The league has 19 teams nationwide, three of them in California.

An ownership group led by former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Sacramento sports attorney Richard Hyde signed an exclusive agreement with Elk Grove in December 2011 to pave the way for the franchise and stadium.

Núñez said Wednesday's council discussion and vote will offer the first glimpse into council and community interest in moving forward with an MLS franchise and stadium.

"The question is, does the city of Elk Grove have an appetite for a major league soccer team?" Núñez said. "I believe they do, and if so, I feel very confident I will be able to deliver an MLS team to Elk Grove."

Núñez said that if the city wants to move forward, his ownership group, Northern California Soccer, will search for potential investors. Eventually, however, the city would have to "pony up some money, you know, to show they have some skin in the game."

The feasibility study being reviewed by council members this week said a professional soccer team could fly in Elk Grove if the city pumps in some money. The city is looking at three proposals, one for a $100 million MLS stadium seating 18,000 and a 15,000-seat stadium running about $80 million. It's also mulling a lower-division North American Soccer League stadium seating 8,000 and costing about $40 million.

In addition, buying a franchise from MLS could cost up to $50 million, according to the feasibility study.

Mayor Gary Davis, who has been working on bringing a professional soccer team to Elk Grove for two years, said the stadium could be built southwest of Whitelock Parkway and Highway 99, where a freeway interchange was previously planned to connect with development around the regional mall.

Mall construction halted in 2008, a victim of the recession. Davis said the current owner, Howard Hughes Corp., claims it's pursuing lease agreements, but a professional soccer stadium next door would dial up interest in completing the mall and leasing stores.

The team could train and practice at the Cosumnes River College soccer fields or at a local high school while the stadium is being built, according to the Elk Grove proposal.

Warren Smith, manager of the United Soccer League in Sacramento, said the lower-division team was launched with the purpose of attracting an MLS team. The last four MLS expansion teams – Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Montreal – emerged from lower-division USL franchises.

"It's a proven pathway that's worked in multiple markets," Smith said. He said the USL is the official player development league for the MLS. Sacramento's team, slated to begin league play in April 2014, is negotiating to play at Sacramento City College, will have a community naming contest at the end of March, and will have an exhibition game sometime this summer.

Smith, a Sacramento River Cats executive, said starting a franchise and building a soccer stadium from scratch in Elk Grove could prove to be tough.

"I admire the fact they're trying to do good for the community," Smith said of Elk Grove officials. "It's a bold move. But it's not easy to build stadiums."

Elk Grove's location would attract Central Valley fans, Núñez said. He called Elk Grove a "huge hotspot" for youth soccer, which could pack the stadium with families.

Núñez said competition is good for cities seeking sports franchises, and the MLS team in Elk Grove and the USL team in Sacramento can coexist.

"I wish them all the luck in the world, but my focus isn't on USL, it's to bring a Major League Soccer team to Elk Grove," Núñez said. "The Sacramento team could be a feeder team for the MLS team."

Call The Bee's Anne Gonzales, (916) 321-1049.

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