May 10 Venue Tax vote: Let the games begin?

Really, what’s another $80 million when it’s essentially been guaranteed by Bexar County officials to pump even more tourism revenue into San Antonio’s already tourism-heavy economy, while resulting in less collective girth for our swelling-by-the-second, Grand Theft Auto IV-addicted children? Not that much, proponents of the Visitor Tax extension (coming May 10 to a Special Election near you!) would have you believe.

The $415-million Visitor Tax extension — the athletic-facilities portion of which includes loads of new football, baseball, soccer, and baseball fields, not to mention a cross-country course, swimming and diving center, and even a fencing (fencing?) facility — is projected to generate more than 2,000 permanent jobs and approximately $200 million in revenue for the local economy.

The proposal is viewed by many as a (no pun intended) slam dunk, so much so that its proponents’ primary fear lies in that very mindset among voters.

“I think the biggest concern is voter apathy,” said Michael Sculley, a consultant for the San Antonio Sports Foundation and the man who spearheaded getting the athletic facilities on the May 10 ballot. “It makes sense, and everyone says the same thing: ‘This will pass easy. I don’t need to vote.’”

C’mon, San Antonians, it’s not like you’re paying for the facilities anyway. According to get-out-the-vote fliers from pro-tax ACT for San Antonio, that right will be reserved for Alamo City tourists, who would fund our area facilities through a continuation of the Visitor Tax on car rentals. Now, if only everyone in the local tourism industry was on board with the plan.

“It’s unfortunate that more people haven’t understood that singling out a single group of customers is fundamentally unfair,” Enterprise Rent-a-Car spokesperson Laura Bryant recently told the Current. “It’s offensive to anybody who believes in the democratic system.” More than half of all car rentals are local, argues the company, which had reportedly toyed with the idea of opposing the tax extension with a well-funded campaign. The County claims that only the auto portion of the hotel and car venue tax can pay for the sports facilities if those facilities are going to host free events, and made an early push to cast any anti-car-tax effort as anti-kids.

But, hey, at least some underserved areas of San Antonio would benefit from the 13 proposed athletic facilities. While an NCAA Division II outdoor complex is slated for St. Mary’s University, which would be contractually obligated to open its doors to youth-related sports events in the surrounding community, the South Side would receive an athletic facility at Mission Concepcion complete with basketball and volleyball gyms, baseball and softball fields, and a track. Some other highlights from the facilities portion of the proposed venue tax:

• Likely mayoral candidate Gordon Hartman’s northeast park would receive $5 million toward a $13.5 million project that includes 15 soccer fields and facilities for children with special needs.

• Brooks City Park would receive $5 million toward a $7.85 million project that includes 10 youth soccer fields.

• Southeast Skyline would receive all of the $3.3 million needed for a seven-field Pony League baseball complex.

• Wheatley Heights Sports Complex on the city’s East Side would receive $7.5 million toward a $16.86 million project that includes a softball four-plex, track, five football fields, and a soccer practice area.

UTSA, pegged to receive $15 million toward an $80-million outdoor soccer and track complex, would — like St. Mary’s — be required to host youth and amateur sporting events. County and university officials, however, aren’t disclosing what, when, and how many events each university would be required to host, primarily because the details are not yet in place.

“We’ll look at the ways we can help,” UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey said. “Even with our `current` baseball stadium, we don’t play there every weekend. And our soccer season is opposite from the high-school season ... The other thing is most of our sports will be done by the end of May or the first of June, for those facilities to be used by other groups. We will have to have a priority plan.”

With, of course, a few caveats.

“If St. Mary’s has an `upgraded` baseball diamond, they aren’t going to want the community to have an open door,” Sculley said. “Otherwise, it would get trashed. It gets overused and they’re not tournament-ready facilities. There’s a limit, and we don’t want to get into meddling with how to manage it.”

Nevertheless, someone will have to, and that responsibility — according to Sculley — could conveniently fall at the feet of the San Antonio Sports Foundation. Though nothing has been finalized, many have recommended that each of the four sections of the venue tax — the others being $125 million for San Antonio River improvements, $100 million for AT&T Center and rodeo ground upgrades, and $110 million for performing arts and cultural facilities — be governed by an oversight committee.

Non-profit entities are being created to manage venue-tax funds for several of the proposed athletic facilities, since according to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county can’t legally “take money and invest in a city park.” The county can, however, fund those parks via a non-profit entity — entities that according to Wolff are expected to sign 40-year leases with the city to maintain the facilities. The County Commissioners were scheduled to approve agreements following press deadline this week.

“That hasn’t been decided,” Susan Blackwood, Executive Director of the Sports Foundation, said of the organization’s role in overseeing the 13 facilities. “We’ve been talking about how to best facilitate not only making sure that everything (is) understood, but how everything is executed ... However the Sports Foundation can assist, we want to be a part of that.”

In between boasts of how many out-of-town sporting events the facilities could lure and how much money those events could filter into the local economy, proponents of the Visitor Tax extension have found time to make mention of the benefits the proposed facilities would offer for actual San Antonians. This includes providing some exercise-ready athletic facilities.

After all, our fair city — according to Men’s Fitness — ranks behind only Las Vegas and Arlington in terms of residents’ collective girth. And while there’s minimal hope for the Alamo City’s pudgy adult population, won’t someone please think of the children? Yes, even those in the often-neglected, lesser-served areas of San Antonio.

“We’re certainly going to restore and enhance the environment — that’s for damn sure,” Wolff said. “It’s a positive for the South Side, because the sports parks are kind of spread out. I really can’t say what `the facilities` will do separately for economic development, but I know this — in all of the parts of the city that we’re building them, we’re going to offer their kids much greater opportunity than what they had today.”

Voters had best embrace the opportunity, Sculley contends, because the clock is ticking.

“It seems like a no-brainer, but you never know,” he said. “It’s now or never. This won’t come again.” •


A word from the “aye”s

Seems like the $80-million portion of the proposed $415 million Visitor Tax extension geared toward youth/amateur athletic facilities is quite popular. Here are a few quotes from proponents of the proposed facilities that didn’t make it into the story.

“That’s the biggest concern — the apathy of voters and people feeling too confident about it. Every day, we’re working the phones and calling people, calling all the groups that have anything to do with the campaign. We talk to them. You can’t take anything for granted.”
— Marco Barros, Executive Director, San Antonio Area Tourism Council

“My counterpoint `to those that oppose the Visitor Tax extension` is that since 1998, even with 9/11, the tourism industry has doubled since that tax has been in place. And the tourism industry is behind this. They weren’t in 1999.”
— Michael Sculley, Consultant, San Antonio Sports Foundation

“We used to host soccer tournaments, but we lost all of them. The combination of what we’re trying to do is give a wide variety of soccer, basketball, baseball, fencing, and swimming, and broaden the type of amateur sporting events you can bring here. That’s the thrust of it.”
— Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff


Venue Tax voting guide
(some assembly required)

It’s not bite-size or (entirely) bullet-pointed, but our venue-tax stories will help you make up your last-minute mind about the four propositions, which would collectively spend $415 million for a slate of art and sports facilities, plus a major leap forward in the River Improvements Project. All of these stories can be found online at Voting day is this Saturday, May 10. Visit for polling locations and a sample ballot.

“Welcome to San Antonio,”
March 26-April 1, 2008

Answers such burning questions as:
• What the hell is the Venue Tax again, and why do they keep calling it a “Visitor Tax”?
• What are each of the four projects going to deliver, and how much will they cost?
• Is it true that only tourists will pay for these new projects?

“The proposed PAC is music to local
performance groups,” April 9-15, 2008

• Why the Symphony and Opera need a new home
• What the Bexar County Performing Arts Center offers smaller arts organizations

“Paying the PAC man,” April 16-22, 2008

• Can a private foundation headed by Tobin Endowment trustee Bruce Bugg raise enough money to build and operate the PAC?
• Do the project numbers add up?

“It’s for the birds,” April 30-May 6, 2008

• the proposed Avenue A/B hike-and-bike trail, a smaller but controversial component of the River Improvements Project funding on the May 10 ballot

Politico backgrounders:
Curblog: “You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe,” February 20, 2008
The Queque: “Your lover’s lover’s alibi,” February 20, 2008
The MashUp: “Build it and they will happily pay for it,” April 2, 2008

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