On Friday, September 29, Mayor Tim Keller held a press conference to announce that the City of Albuquerque intends to lease 7 acres of the 365 acres of land at Balloon Fiesta Park Balloon Fiesta Park to the New Mexico United Soccer Team for a multi-purpose soccer stadium. According the city, the stadium would be located in a lot that is not on the field of the park but is a lot just east of the field. United New Mexico currently subleases city-owned Isotopes Park from its primary tenant, the Triple-A baseball Albuquerque Isotopes. The USLC (United Soccer League) has mandated that its clubs must be based in soccer specific stadiums by 2026.
The lease will require the soccer team to invest at least $30 million into the site to build the stadium. No city funding will be used for the construction of the stadium. However, Keller said the city will spend at least $10 million of existing city, state and federal funding for infrastructure upgrades on the site including ground, electric, and sewer work and other foundational work for the stadium, as well as improvements for the park as a whole.
The city says no parking spots will be lost, but they just might be moved. This year, the city added a 250-spot parking area, and plans to add more parking facilities in the future to address concerns expressed by Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta management. Keller said this:
“We’re opening a new 250 car lot this year, that we practiced last year. So that is going to be open. So, we can replace that parking in other areas.”
Balloon Fiesta currently leases the park from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the end of October. This year’s Fiesta runs Oct. 7-15.
TERMS AND CONDTIONS OF LEASE
Mayor Keller announced that the lease will be introduced on Monday, October 2, and must be approved by the Albuquerque City Council on October 16. Its a take it or leave it approval without negotiation of terms the City Council may want. If the lease is approved by the City Council, construction for the new stadium will begin within 90 days.
The lease term will be for an initial period of 30 years with the option to renew and extensions for two 15-year terms which means the lease could be for a full 60 years.
The lease agreement contains the following terms and conditions:
- Seven acres of land, which is currently for parking at the park, will be leased by United New Mexico for $35,000 a year with a 2% rent increase each year.
- United will pay the city 10% of revenue from parking fees it charges.
- United New Mexico must initially invest at least $30 million of private funds to design and build the stadium.
- The city is obligated under the lease to build certain features that remain open to the public during Balloon Fiesta, including shade areas and public restrooms.
- United will not be allowed to host games during the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
- The planned stadium will not interfere with ballooning in the area.
- The city will be able to use the stadium 10 days a year for free.
- At the end of the lease, New Mexico United is obligated to sell the stadium for $1 to the city of Albuquerque, unless the lease is extended by mutual agreement.
Keller said he pushed for high school soccer tournaments to be held at the stadium.
A spokesperson for New Mexico United said details about the design, size or cost are yet to be determined. The city will not be involved with the stadium design.
Mayor Keller issued the following statement:
“Albuquerque families deserve world-class amenities, and we won’t give up on projects like a stadium that fulfill these quality-of-life needs. Leasing underutilized land at Balloon Fiesta Park not only helps United grow, but also enriches one of our most frequented areas and provides new economic opportunities – a significant win for our city and a potential game-changer for our community.”
Keller said this at the press conference:
“We’re using state money, federal money, and existing money that we had to do the utilities, the earthwork, the electrical work that it takes to put in the stadium. … We mostly had to do that anyway because we want to do those improvements at the Balloon Fiesta that have to do with Vendors Row. … Now it’s real. And, now, it’s also mostly out of my hands. …
This is going to be a private stadium, and so what we have allowed for in the lease agreement is roughly ten days where the city can use it for city events. … We have also built into this lease agreement, by request, that it be used and available for soccer championships. … [The lease] also means bathrooms. …We might actually have permanent bathrooms at Balloon Fiesta Park.”
Peter Trevisani, the owner of New Mexico United, did not attend the Keller press conference. Instead, he was interviewed at the teams locker room practiced field and he issued the following statement about the stadium plans:
“It should come as no surprise that we’ve been working relentlessly for several years to find a location and a plan that would not only be a catalyst for our community but also ensure the longevity of New Mexico United. This plan does that. We’re excited to privately build a stadium that creates jobs and economic impact, improves Balloon Fiesta Park, and shows that New Mexicans can do whatever they set their minds to.”
On October 2, in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Trevisani said United has not finalized plans for a potential Balloon Fiesta Park stadium, including its initial size and even whether the playing surface would be grass or artificial turf. Still, Trevisani said he is confident the project will receive City Council approval. Trevisani said this:
“I think the City Council has been great along the way. … I’m not a politician, but I truly believe they want to make Albuquerque the best version of itself possible. This is not a red-blue issue — it’s not even a red-green issue. This is about building a stadium with private funding that makes the city better. I think it’s a win-win.”
On other issues relating to the stadium, Trevisani said this:
HIGH SCHOOL SOCCER GAMES AT THE STADIUM:
“We want to have high school games. There are things in (the lease agreement) that call for that, things that benefit United and things that benefit the city and Balloon Fiesta Park, including us not playing games during Balloon Fiesta and hosting high school games at the stadium.”
HOW A STADIUM WOULD FIT INTO THE BALLOON FIESTA PARK AREA:
“Working with Balloon Fiesta has been amazing. We’ve found that working together can be collaborative. They’re lacking things like bathrooms and water hookups, which this will address. … We want the stadium to help the area develop in a way that’s respectful to the neighbors and businesses who are there now.”
NATURAL GRASS VERSUS ARTIFICIAL TURF:
“My heart says grass, my wallet says turf. Everyone likes playing on grass, but there’s a balance to consider because we want to have women’s games and high school games and you can’t play on grass every day. There’s also the expense of watering to consider. We’ll probably make that decision as late in the process as possible.”
BRINGING A WOMEN’S PROFESSIONAL SOCCER TEAM TO ALBUQUERQUE:
“We have to bring forward a women’s team. Exactly what level that will be initially, we’ll see. But I know in my heart of hearts we will have a women’s team with New Mexico on its jerseys. We can’t have that now because of space and scheduling at Isotopes Park. A new stadium makes it possible.”
The link to the quoted news source is here:
REACTION TO LEASE AGREEMENT
Initially, Balloon Fiesta leadership had concerns about the stadium being built at the park. Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Media Relations Team issued the following statement:
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s Board of Directors met with representatives of the City of Albuquerque and New Mexico United last month to learn more about the impact of a potential United stadium on Balloon Fiesta’s operations. Three key areas of concern were raised during that meeting: parking, access to Balloon Fiesta Park and infrastructure improvements. We continue to receive these assurances and look forward to continuing the conversation to achieve these goals.
City Council President Pat Davis was interviewed at a remote location by video conference call and said for his part if United can uphold the terms of the lease, he sees no problem with the stadium. Davis said this:
“This becomes 100% on the shoulders of the team at this point to put up and build their stadium. If they do it, it’s a big attraction for the city. … But if there becomes a time when they’re not able to meet their obligations, and they’re not going to construct their building, you know, we should have the right to give it to somebody else.”
In a subsequent interview reported on October 3 by pollical blogger Joe Monahan, Davis said this:
This is a very straightforward lease deal, much like the others we’ve done. For example, Amazon leasing land to build a hanger at the airport. The Legislature allocated money for infrastructure support. I required the lease contract to include a “do or die” clause that requires United to break ground and meet deadlines or they would forfeit the lease. I like this lease because it places 100% responsibility on the team to build the stadium, and reverts the land back to us if they don’t. Other than that, it’s a pretty standard lease.
Links to quoted news sources are here:
KELLER IS STADIUM PROMOTER IN CHIEF
For the last 4 years Mayor Tim Keller has been what only can be described as the “promoter in chief” for the building of a Soccer Stadium for United New Mexico with government financing and assets.
During the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions, Keller was involved with lobbying the New Mexico legislature to earmarked $9 million for a stadium including $4 million from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham during the 2021 legislative session. The cost of a $400,000 analysis was paid for by state money allocated in the 2020 session.
In 2021, Mayor Tim Keller was running for his second term. Seeing an opportunity to help with his reelection efforts and increase voter turnout, Keller pushed for a city bond initiative for voter approval to build a multiuse soccer stadium estimated to cost $65 million to $70 million for the issuance of up to $50 million in bonds to build the multiuse soccer stadium. Keller made it clear that the stadium would not be built by the city without voter approval.
On July 24, 2021 Keller took part in pregame tailgate parties for a New Mexico United Soccer Team. Keller took to the field of Isotopes Park during halftime and in a campaign style speech to the crowd, Keller stood with New Mexico United owner Peter Trevisani to deliver the news of the results of the feasibility analysis for the stadium. Keller announce to the crowd of 10,000 he was sending a resolution to City Council to place the proposal on the November 2 ballot.
The City Council did just that, but the bond measure failed miserably in November 2021 on a two to one vote with 65% voting NO while virtually all of the other bond requests passed by healthy majorities. The stadium bonds failed, despite a $1 million dollar ad campaign financed by New Mexico United soccer team that was to be the primary tenant of the facility. Election night, Keller was reelected, expressed disappointment in the stadium vote and said his administration would respect the voters’ decision not to fund the stadium.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Mayor Tim Keller’s September 29 press conference to announce that he wants the City Council to approve the lease of 7 acres of Balloon Fiesta Park (BFP) to build a soccer stadium came as a surprise, ostensibly including one party to the lease. It came as a surprise to United New Mexico, the Albuquerque City Council and the Balloon Fiesta Board of Directors for the reason that Keller made the announcement all by his lonesome self, even clean shaven and wearing a suit and tie for a change. City Councilor Pat Davis was interviewed by video conference call, soccer team owner Peter Trevisani was tracked down by one station for an interview and the Balloon Fiesta public relations was relegated to issuing a statement. Keller also made it a point to say “it’s mostly out of my hands” to peremptorily lay any and all blame on the city counsel when United soccer fans become enraged if the lease is not approved all the while Keller takes credit for some of the terms.
There are several concerns about the lease:
First: The lease agreement was introduced to city council on October 2 and it is scheduled for a council hearing on October 16. The lease is being presented to the city council as a take it or leave it proposition without allowing a negotiation of terms the council may want. A weekend, 3-day notice and 13 days asking for final approval of the lease does not come even close to sufficient notice to the Council for genuine debate and asking for additions or amendments to the lease. The city being able to use the stadium 10 days a year for free does not seem like a whole lot. There is no mention of the stadium being used as an entertainment venue for concerts or allowing it be “sub leased” requiring city approval to other tenants to generate income with the city sharing in the income from other events. There is no mention as to who will foot the bill on maintenance and upkeep of the grounds.
Second: The 3-day weekend notice allowed no time to give notice to area residents to secure their input and there is no mention if they will be told of the pending approval. Absent is any information on what traffic control and noise studies have been done on a soccer stadium in the area and what traffic control and road improvements will be needed and who will pay for them.
Third: Although Mayor Keller claims the City will not fund the stadium’s construction, the City website states that “the State has provided capital to the City of Albuquerque for infrastructure improvements that will provide needed upgrades at Balloon Fiesta Park.” The stadium is not an upgrade to the park and the question is can the funding be diverted to an unrelated construction project or facility?
Fourth: Voter’s have already voted NO by a landslide that tax payer money should not be used for the construction of the stadium and all construction cost overruns. The lease should contain specific provisions that the Soccer Team will assume any and all costs for future improvements or remodeling to the facility without any city funding.
Fifth: The regular 2023 municipal election to elect City Councilors for City Council Districts 2, 4, 6, and 8 will be held on November 7, 2023 along with $200 Million in bonds to be approved by city voters. Incumbent Progressive Democrat City Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis and Conservative Republican Trudy Jones, big supporters of the Mayor’s legacy projects, are not running for another term. The November 7 municipal election could shift city council majority control from the current 5 Democrats to Republican control or perhaps a far more conservative shift to challenge Mayor Keller’s progressive agenda. The construction of a stadium has been an issue in the city council races, and Keller’s rush job to get a vote on the lease by 3 lame duck incumbents smacks of politics at its worse and signals Keller likely believes he may not have the 5 votes with the new council or at least does not want to risk it.
Sixth: Then there is the matter of location and it must be asked why was Balloon Fiesta Park chosen in the first place? Sports stadiums are often buildt to serve as economic drivers for the area around them. Restaurants, bars and light retail usually result being built in the surrounding areas. That will not happen at Balloon Fiesta Park. There are other large tracts of land the city owns that could have been offered more centrally located for the stadium. One example is the Sun Port airport land that is the abandoned South airport runway located south of Puerto Del Sol Golf Course on Gibson.
At first blush, the proposed lease is a classic public/private partnership that is often used and that can be a big win-win proposition and go along ways to build a facility the city actually needs that will enhance the city’s quality of life. The best example that already exists of such a facility is the Isotopes Park, a city owned facility rented to a professional sports team.
The problem is that we have a mayor who always feels he has to be the absolute center of attention. Keller has a very bad habit of jumping the gun on projects he considers are his legacy projects that will benefit him politically. He refuses to confer with stakeholders to build a consensus to get things done, especially with the city council.
Good examples of this are Keller’s Gateway 24-7 homeless shelter where he pushed the acquisition of the old Lovelace Hospital, his 7-mile, $80 million rail trail that he announced all by himself at an event with great fan fare making it a public relations event, his ABQ Housing Forward Plan, and his pushing to get the Soccer Stadium on the ballot in 2021 to help his re-election bid. Now he wants to push a vote on a 30 to 60 year lease by a lame duck city council. He takes it a step further by cautioning that it is now out of his hands implying people can place blame on the city council if they do not approve it.
The lame duck council should defer the final vote on the lease until the new council is sworn in. This will allow time for public input and perhaps needed changes to the lease. It is the new council that will have to deal with any problems associated with the lease, so let them vote on it.