Their dream for a Major League Soccer franchise on hold, Sacramento officials Wednesday pledged to achieve a series of milestones by year’s end in order to finalize the city’s bid for MLS admission.
Mayor Kevin Johnson and executives with Sacramento Republic FC officially launched “Operation Turnkey,” their plan for demonstrating to MLS officials the city’s readiness for an expansion team. Most of the milestones involve getting Sacramento prepared to start construction on an MLS-caliber stadium if and when the league awards Sacramento a franchise.
“The moment we get word from MLS, we’ll start digging,” Johnson said at a news conference on a windswept bridge overlooking the planned stadium site, at the northeast corner of the downtown railyard. “By the end of the year, we’ll be ready to put shovels in the ground.”
Whether MLS will be ready for Sacramento by the end of 2015 is another question. The league has awarded its last two expansion franchises to Miami and Minneapolis, bringing MLS to its immediate goal of 24 teams. But MLS Commissioner Don Garber also said recently the league has begun studying whether to expand beyond 24 teams, and league officials have made it clear they consider Sacramento a serious candidate for a spot. Garber has said the study could take a year or so.
The mayor repeated his claim that MLS officials have told him Sacramento’s entry into the league is a matter of when, not if.
“We’re at the front of the list of expansion cities,” added Kevin Nagle, managing partner of Republic FC, the extraordinarily popular minor-league team that forms the foundation of the city’s MLS effort.
Still, it’s not clear when MLS would be ready to anoint Sacramento. “They’re still trying to figure out their process,” Johnson said. “They’re looking deeply to see what the next phase of their expansion looks like.”
Miami remains a wild card in the expansion game. Lead investor David Beckham, the retired soccer star, has been granted a franchise, but only if he can get a stadium plan together. So far he’s been unable to do so, and Johnson said he wants Sacramento to be ready should either Miami or Minneapolis falter. Minneapolis announced a plan for a privately financed stadium earlier this week.
Nagle has said Republic FC’s owners have the financial capacity to build an MLS franchise, an effort that will likely cost around $100 million for the expansion fee and $150 million for construction. In recent months, Republic FC’s ownership roster has been fortified by investments from the Sacramento Kings and the lead owners of the San Francisco 49ers.
Wednesday’s announcement marked the first steps by the mayor and Republic FC since Minneapolis was announced as the latest expansion franchise in mid-March. That announcement “only motivated us,” Johnson said.
The five milestones outlined by the mayor and Republic FC consist of identifying a team of architects and engineers for pre-development work; completing a stadium cost estimate; securing control of the railyard site; producing a stadium term sheet; and developing a feasibility study on the stadium and the Sacramento market itself. Johnson said he wants to make sure the railyard site is “fully approved and permitted” when MLS calls.
Gaining control of the location has proved to be one of the knottier problems in the whole process. Republic FC investor Larry Kelley, a Sacramento developer, first revealed in mid-2013 that he was in the process of buying the entire 240-acre railyard from an Illinois real estate company. He still hasn’t closed on the sale, in large part because of lingering questions over how the remaining toxic waste will be removed from the site, a former Union Pacific yard.
“There’s a lot of legalities, a lot of compliance issues,” Johnson said. “I can tell you with certainty” that Kelley will have control of the railyard by year end, he said.
Financing the stadium is another issue. The mayor said he wants the project to be “a public-private partnership” but also reiterated his earlier stance that the stadium should be paid for with private dollars. Republic FC executives have said they’re prepared to pay for construction without a subsidy.
The mayor added that the public has already spent $300 million on roads and infrastructure to prepare the whole railyard, not just the stadium site, for development. He said those public dollars should be counted as taxpayer support for the project.
The city’s MLS bid is based largely on Republic FC’s success. The second-year club has consistently played to sellout crowds at its temporary home, Bonney Field, which is in the final stages of an expansion project that will bring seating capacity to around 11,200. President and founder Warren Smith said Republic FC has sold 9,358 season tickets.
Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.