The Say-Town Lowdown – Guest Column

The last couple of weeks brought the news that Bexar County hired  a new consultant for $85,000. Michael Sculley, spouse of San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, won a contract to scout out opportunities to spend the hotel and car-rental tax dollars now dedicated to paying off the SBC/AT&T Center. It’s already pretty clear how and where County Judge Nelson Wolff sees those tax dollars going — to pay for a new stadium designed to entice a major-league (preferably baseball) team to San Antonio.

Major-league lust isn’t a new thing for Wolff, or his city and county predecessors. The Alamodome was erected on the promise that it would serve as a “multipurpose convention and sports facility.” But everyone in town knew that the Dome was expected to house an NFL team when it opened in 1993. And despite the promise that even without big-time football it would bring jobs and economic prosperity in the form of dozens of new conventions and lots of events featuring the circus or monster trucks, we all knew that Henry Cisneros was positioning San Antonio for a major-league bid. Unfortunately, we came up short — millions short in area population and income, dozens short in businesses that could pay for box seats and suites. So when the NFL chose cities for its 1993 expansion round, Jacksonville and Charlotte got the nod over San Antonio.

The great expectations for NFL football boomed again after 1998 when Red McCombs bought the Minnesota Vikings. As McCombs and the state legislature tussled over a new stadium, local press stories touted the imminent arrival of the Vikings, and of course, the need for a modern, up-to-date stadium, or at the very least a thorough overhaul of the aging Alamodome.

While the Vikings never arrived from the north, the relocation of the New Orleans Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided yet another opportunity for local major-league desire to bloom. For the daily, that meant a storm of stories about the potential for keeping Tom Benson and his Saints here. It also provided the opportunity for Mayor Hardberger to demonstrate that the quest for big-league status is forever the most important goal of mayoral leadership.

Our failure to win the Saints in the face of the NFL’s clear unwillingness to appear to be abandoning New Orleans following the disaster did not spell the end of big-league lust even last year. The Florida Marlins offered Wolff an opportunity to demonstrate how desperate some of this community’s leadership is to woo and win a major-league team. While the Marlins’ ownership was obviously trying to put pressure on local politicos in the Miami area to give them a new stadium for little or nothing, Wolff trotted out not just the promise of some $200 million for a stadium — paid for with those “venue taxes” that had financed the SBC/AT&T Center — but managed to take the Marlins bosses on a guided tour of potential stadium sites. First on the list: the old Longhorn Quarry site, precisely the place where the Spurs had once proposed a new arena before their final deal with the County. Finally, in mid-May, with the Marlins obviously uninterested in San Antonio, Wolff “withdrew” our generous offer to the Florida ball club.

For more than a decade, every time local politicians and business leaders have come up to bat for a major-league team, we’ve swung and missed. The reasons for that civic failure should be obvious — despite the protestations of local leadership, San Antonio and Bexar County remain too small a media market, with too little income and too few major local corporations to sustain the finances of major-league sports.

Yet as the hiring of Michael Sculley symbolizes, the same folks who sold us the Alamodome keep thinking that the next time will be the charm. And with the prospect of “free” revenues from the hotel and car-rental taxes, we somehow need to commit those dollars for something big right now.

A serious, public discussion about the cost of a major-league team, and its value, is what’s needed now, before a county judge or mayor decides that a stadium is the most important missing element in the community. But in case a serious discussion doesn’t happen, a nice public battle appears in the offing.

When the plan to pay for a new Spurs arena with a hotel and car-rental tax first occurred, the local hotel industry made its displeasure clear. Hotel taxes, after all, should belong to the hospitality industry, spent on projects that lure more visitors to our town. So the hotel association has already claimed those tax dollars for its own pet project — the extension of the River Walk.

Maybe we’ll get to choose between ballplayers and tourists.


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