Over a Friday night dinner with a representative for Major League Soccer, my questions about whether Sacramento stood a chance to be an MLS city were stopped cold by a question put to me:
“What’s changed about Sacramento in the last two decades?” asked Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for MLS.
Everything, I said. Sacramento believes in itself in a way that it didn’t when I first moved to town from the Bay Area in November 1989. But the attitude is new, and not everyone fully appreciates what’s happening here.
One of the reasons MLS came to Sacramento last week – aside from assessing the city’s financial bid to found an MLS team here – was because no one of authority with the league had been to the California capital since the early 1990s.
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From a distance, MLS had become aware of the huge crowds drawn to the games of Sacramento Republic FC, the minor-league soccer team local entrepreneur Warren Smith started this year.
From a distance, MLS had been impressed by Sacramento’s ability to prevent the Kings from relocating to Seattle when the national media declared it was a “done deal.”
So MLS came to Sacramento to see for themselves.
Sports leagues go where there are ascending population bases, investment, action and the potential for future growth.
Some see such interest as predatory and there is a strain of desperation among some who want to keep Sacramento as it was long ago, but let’s get back to that.
After a dormant period, Sacramento is on the map but for reasons other than sports.
I pointed to the food on Courtemanche’s plate at Grange, the terrific restaurant in the lobby of the stately Citizen Hotel.
The chicken and the vegetables were locally grown, and while some deride the farm-to-fork movement as a gimmick, promoting sustainable, locally sourced food is creating a regional culture that celebrates Sacramento’s agricultural legacy.
It’s a source of pride now. The “Cowtown” label has been thrown in the trash by a new generation of doers who are creating places like Grange.
Not long ago, the building that now houses the restaurant and hotel stood in decay across the street from Cesar Chavez Plaza and City Hall.
The last time Courtemanche was in Sacramento, there was no Grange or Citizen. It was a building that had been beautiful but had been dormant for a very long time – like Sacramento.
Young entrepreneurs like Kipp Blewett made the Citizen Hotel happen. Also changed is a new generation of chefs who live the farm-to-fork ideal.
On Thursday night, MLS officials dined at Mulvaney’s, where Patrick Mulvaney has not only built a national reputation as a chef but also shared his passion for food with the community.
When I saw Mulvaney after he had fed MLS officials, Mayor Kevin Johnson and a large group of local investors, the chef turned to me and said, “It’s a great time in Sacramento.” It is.
I pointed to Courtemanche’s glass and told him he was drinking beer from Track 7 brewery, which is located in the shadow of Hughes Stadium near Sacramento City College – where the Republic FC packed the house last spring and first got the attention of MLS.
Local brewers and winemakers (too many to name here) have raised their game in the last few years while creating vibrant gathering spots in once-dormant spaces.
I told Courtemanche that these entrepreneurs are largely young people who are investing in their city as much as they are investing in their businesses. Younger people are flocking to Republic games in big numbers, attracting the interest of a league fueled by the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
Younger people I know love what Sacramento is and don’t fear it evolving – a difference in attitude from some of their elders.
I’ve loved Sacramento from the moment I moved here nearly 25 years ago. But as an outsider, I noticed the strain of small-minded thinking here. I would tell my friends that no community was perfect and that Sacramento’s issue was that Sacramento didn’t realize how great it was.
The neighborhoods, the parks, the bike trails, the rivers, the theater scene, the arts community – it was all here. But ideas that aimed to take the city higher were always attacked.
Fearing change is human. Fearing Sacramento will change was the local pastime.
That fear is what fed the opposition to the new downtown arena for the Kings. That fear is expressed on my voice mail as I hear from people who hate the idea of a new MLS stadium at the downtown railyard – even though the stadium would be privately financed.
It’s time to put that fear to rest.
On Friday, Sacramento Republic held a news conference at the railyard, dormant for decades but now closer than ever to development. It’s really happening.
Larry Kelley, a local businessman, is poised to control the railyard and invest in Sacramento Republic. Kevin Nagle, who built a hugely successful business in El Dorado Hills, would be the lead investor in the Republic if it becomes an MLS franchise. Many other local investors are lined up behind Nagle because they believe in Sacramento as a market, and they believe in their city.
Courtemanche and other MLS officials were impressed but kept their cards close to the vest.
When I met Courtemanche in the lobby of the Citizen on Friday night, I asked him if he had noticed the tribute to MLS at the hotel. He hadn’t.
So we went out and stood near the corner of 10th and J, where the Citizen had set up a window display with an image of Johnson and the words:
“Built for MLS.”
It was a beautiful, warm night and a nice gesture toward visitors seeing Sacramento with fresh eyes.
Courtemanche smiled and seemed charmed. Sacramento does that.