Go west, Louisville City FC

Mar 8, 2017 at 9:52 am
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The success and support of a new soccer stadium will depend almost entirely on the site location.

There is little debate that professional soccer is a hit in Louisville. Despite its undersized, ill-suited home field at the Louisville Slugger Field baseball stadium, Louisville City FC last year drew the second-largest attendance in its 29-team league. But even with all that success, there is also little debate that the team must relocate to a new, soccer-specific stadium to remain viable in this city.

So given the success and consensus on the team’s future, what’s the question?

How badly do you want soccer, Louisville?

The city already has one stadium in financial crisis, and we still have decades of payments left on that one. The KFC Yum! Center — only in its seventh year of operation — is in such financial distress UofL, Louisville Metro and state government already are renegotiating the first deal.

So, Louisville, how deep do you want to dive into this soccer thing?

Last year, the city released a feasibility study it commissioned from Conventions, Sport and Leisure International, which called for a new 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in or around downtown. The price tag: $30 million to $50 million.

The study also cited three funding options — well, only one option… private and public funding, but in three iterations. First, the $30 million option would be a 50-50 split between the taxpayers and the team’s owners — a group of about 30 investors. Second, the $40 million option would run the taxpayers’ share up to 54 percent of the construction cost. Finally, the $50 million plan would also rely on 54 percent public funding, as well as an additional $18.5 million from the city’s general fund.

These are always extremely complicated financial models and forecasts. So how much public money do we want to continue to spend on stadiums? To which, in my humble opinion, the answer is entirely dependent on location.

Louisville FC officials have indicated that they have a site or two selected, and that they are in negotiations to secure property for a future stadium. If this stadium is anywhere east of Ninth Street, then it is a bad idea, bad investment and the Metro Council should oppose any plan that includes public funding.

As with the Yum! Center, the argument for taxpayer-funded stadiums is that they promise economic growth — if we the public invest, then additional developments and economic activity will follow, resulting in economic growth and, ultimately, greater tax revenues. This is the way it is supposed to work.

There is much debate nationally about how well this has worked. Regardless of whether that works, the city cannot make another major investment that further entrenches the concentration of wealth in the east, and diverts already-meager resources from the west.

This is not a feel-good demand, either. For starters, too many projects have been promised and leave out the west. More important, there is too much vacant, cheap, available land for development. The economic future of the city depends on finally investing in The West End. Without something to spark the economy, the property values will always be mired in neglect, area schools will continue to lag and the wealth will continue to cascade up river to the east.

Soccer fans are committed. It doesn’t take a $75,000 feasibility study — what the city paid — to show that Louisville FC’s average attendance of 7,200 will follow the team wherever a new stadium goes.

So break the divide.

As we featured in LEO last week, the feasibility study also estimated $195 million in new spending from construction and operation, as well as a net of 2,100 new jobs that would result directly or indirectly from the new stadium. And, yes, these estimates might be inflated. But regardless of what it turns out to be, the fact is that this city cannot afford to spend another $50 million on a major project, especially with majority taxpayer funding, and not invest in The West End.

If the team owners want the stadium down at Champions Park off of River Road, that’s fine. They can pay for it. But so long as the city is expected to contribute, this is a city project, and a project that will benefit the city.