City Beat

Major League Soccer execs schedule visit to Sacramento

Major League Soccer executives have heard plenty about Sacramento’s potential as home for an MLS expansion team. Now a date has been set for them to see for themselves.

Two top executives with the nation’s premier soccer league will be here on Sept. 18 and 19 to assess the region’s viability as a potential expansion market for MLS, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced on Tuesday.

In a memo to his City Council colleagues, Johnson said Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott and Charles Altchek, special assistant to league Commissioner Don Garber, will visit Sacramento “to better understand our market, current and potential stadium options, and potential MLS ownership group.”

“I am extremely optimistic that Sacramento can present a compelling and winning case to Major League Soccer,” the mayor wrote.

MLS executives said last week they also plan to visit Elk Grove, which is working on its own plan to build a stadium and attract an expansion franchise.

A focus of the MLS visit to Sacramento will be the downtown railyard, which the mayor described as the most appealing of all potential sites for a new soccer stadium. Johnson also stressed in his memo that a new stadium would be privately financed.

While other sites are still under consideration for a stadium, the railyard has emerged as the front-runner.

“A catalytic, mixed-use development project like an MLS soccer stadium aligns with the city’s goals to develop the downtown railyards as a vibrant, dynamic, mixed-use development project,” the mayor wrote in his memo.

Johnson said Sacramento has already proved itself as a strong soccer market, given the success of Republic FC – a team playing in the lower division USL Pro league that has shattered league attendance records. The owners of the Sacramento Kings are also discussing investing in Republic FC and giving the club the financial backing and cachet needed to make the jump to MLS.

Warren Smith, president of Republic FC, said his group is “looking forward to showing MLS what a great town this is and what a great opportunity this is.”

Smith, Johnson and Kings President Chris Granger made a presentation to MLS officials at the league’s All-Star game in Portland last month. Abbott said he was impressed with Sacramento and would visit the region soon.

Smith said he’d like to present detailed stadium plans to MLS officials when they’re here later this month. “We’d be wasting their time if we don’t,” he said.

Sacramento developer Larry Kelley is purchasing the 240-acre railyard site just north of downtown. Kelley’s son and business partner, Denton Kelley, said his firm has had several discussions with Republic FC and Kings executives about the railyard as a potential home for the team.

Kelley said the discussions so far have been “initial, kind of conceptual,” but two spots have emerged as the most likely possibilities. Both sites are in the northeast area of the railyard, in the vicinity of the eastern boundary at Seventh Street, he said.

Most of the railyard is still owned by Inland American Real Estate Trust, an Illinois investment firm that took the property through foreclosure in late 2010. Kelley’s company said in January it was buying the land from Inland, although the deal hasn’t closed yet. Denton Kelley said he expects the purchase to be complete sometime before the end of the year.

“Everything is proceeding forward as planned,” he said.

Although it was Johnson who announced the dates of the MLS visit, Elk Grove officials said they believe their bid for a team is still getting serious consideration from league officials.

“We feel good about our position,” said Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis. “We’ve got land, we’ve got a term sheet that’s almost finalized.”

Last week, the Elk Grove City Council agreed to spend $4.4 million for a 100-acre rural site near Highway 99. City staff also unveiled a tentative agreement to help Elk Grove investors finance an $88 million stadium with a mix of sales-tax revenue and ticket surcharges. The Elk Grove bid is being led by former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

Núñez and Davis said they believe Elk Grove and Sacramento should band together and form a united bid to MLS. “My hope is that, by the time (MLS officials) come, we’re all working alongside as one region,” Núñez said.

MLS plans to add at least one more franchise to its ranks by 2020. Sacramento is believed to be in a tight competition with Minneapolis and Las Vegas for that slot. Other cities, including San Diego and the Texas cities of San Antonio and Austin, have expressed interest in an MLS franchise as well.

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