On Monday, November 20, the Albuquerque City Council voted 7-2 in favor of a 30 year lease of city own land at Balloon Fiesta Park to build a $30 Million privately funded multi-use stadium for New Mexico United Soccer Team. Voting YES were Democrat City Councilors Pat Davis, Isaac Benton, Tammy Feibelkorn, Klarisa Pena, Louis Sanchez and Republican City Councilors Dan Lewis and Trudy Jones. Voting NO were Republican City Councilors Renée Grout and Brooke Bassan.
The 30 year lease was negotiated by the Mayor Tim Keller Administration. The lease was introduced to the city council on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023 and on October 16, the lease was to be voted upon by the Albuquerque City Council. The Council deferred the vote for a full month because it was “uncomfortable” with the one-week rush job by Mayor Tim Keller to get it approved. The Council considered deferring the vote until after the new City Council is sworn in on January 1 with 3 new councilors, but opted to defer the vote one month until a ruling by the Environmental Planning Commission (EPC).
On Thursday, November 16, the Albuquerque Environmental Planning Commission (EPC) held a hearing regarding making zoning changes to the master plan and site plan so that City Council could approve, deny or defer the lease and it voted to approve the zone changes on 8 to 1 vote. The EPC considered the environmental impacts of the stadium to surrounding area taking into account such factors as lighting, noise, traffic and parking and found that the stadium would not have a detrimental impact.
The city of Albuquerque intends to lease a mere 7 of 365 acres of Balloon Fiesta Park to New Mexico United. Early renderings of the facility considered by the City Council and the EPC are of a 185,000 square foot facility that could house up to 11,000 people, which is slightly smaller than Isotopes Park where the team currently plays. New Mexico United is expected to host 17 games a year, but not during the Balloon Fiesta. City leaders say the stadium would be used for other events as well.
Upwards of 100 people sign up to speak at the November 20 city council meeting, mostly those in favor of the lease and building the Stadium with many attendees being soccer players dress in their United uniforms. Although some neighbors to the park came out to support the stadium, others said they were concerned about light and noise pollution from the construction and building, They expressed frustration with a lack of communication about the proposed project.
Carlos Tenorio II, the president of the Curse, an official support group of New Mexico United, spoke in favor of the lease and said this:
“It would mean a lot to the team, but it would mean a lot to the community. Look at it more as a communal ground. Isotopes Park is a great example, it’s a family friendly entertainment, a good time at the ballpark. You’ll see the same at the New Mexico United match.”
Sean Sheehan, the owner of Sheehan Winery, also spoke in favor of the lease and said this:
“I think that New Mexico United is going to allow us to move forward as a state and city. It’s a collaboration between soccer and local businesses and I think that the more that we can bring those two things together, the more we can be more successful as a community.”
Notwithstanding all the support expressed, there were those that did express major concern if not outright opposition to the stadium.
Some hot air balloon pilots spoke to the media in opposition to the stadium. Scott Appelman, president & CEO of Rainbow Ryders, Albuquerque’s largest balloon ride operator during the Balloon Fiesta suspects adding a stadium into the mix will only bring new problems. Appelman said this:
“I am highly skeptical, exceptionally concerned and protective of the future of Balloon Fiesta. … I think you need to pump the brakes and get the details out. … I’m really concerned with how fast all of this is coming about. I just don’t understand the wisdom. I don’t trust how this is all coming about in the last six months. You’re taking 7 acres out of an area, that has about 16 parking spots, and it will decrease the number of parking spots by several hundred. … I don’t feel, until there is a firm plan and understanding of what exactly is going on, that this should be approved. … I haven’t seen where any real agreements have been made with like, what is Balloon Fiesta Park gonna get? … I personally believe that this will be one more nail in the coffin for what Fiesta looks like, compared to what it used to look like.”
The Keller Administration made it clear the proposed stadium will be located behind a set of power lines that already restrict balloon traffic, and there are plans to add more parking.
Barbara Bloomingfield, who spoke to the council during the meeting, spoke against the stadium and said this:
“A no vote is not a vote against United, but simply a vote against a poorly drafted lease and it’s terms. … The city, if it’s determined to enter into this action, can rethink and redo this deal and return with something that does not have the effect of this lease.”
REACTION TO CITY COUNCIL LEASE APPROVAL
Mayor Tim Keller after the voted said in a statement:
“Scoring a pro soccer stadium in Albuquerque is a big win for families. … We listened to voters, worked together, and now the ultimate goal is one step closer to being realized.”
United owner and President Peter Trevisani said this in a statement after the vote:
“We are excited that the Council has approved a lease that allows New Mexico United to move forward with the construction of a privately funded stadium that will be for all New Mexicans. … We still have a lot of work to do, and are honored to represent our incredible state. Somos Unidos.”
New Mexico United Chief Business Officer Ron Patel had this to say:
“… [The lease is] a step in the right direction. We truly believe it is a win-win for the city of Albuquerque, for its residents, and for New Mexico United. We want to be very sensitive to the people who live around Balloon Fiesta Park, knowing that any kind of facility is going to affect the people that live around there. … While this is a privately funded project, it’s not being paid for by the taxpayers. It’s being paid for by private owners. We do look at this as a community asset. This should belong to the community even though the community doesn’t have to pay for it.”
Links to quoted news sources are here:
TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF LEASE
The New Mexico United lease approved by the city council was negotiated by the Keller Administration. It is a take it or leave it approval without negotiation of terms the City Council may want. Now that the lease has been approved by the City Council, construction for the new stadium can 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. Ron Patel, chief business officer at New Mexico United, said the team plans to build an 8,000- to 10,000-seat stadium.
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.
- United would retain all other revenues generated from the stadium, and from naming rights, sponsorships, advertising, tickets, merchandise, games and other events, while taking on all costs to operate the stadium and parking at all times. United would pay its own utility costs. The city would get its own box or cabana or a specialized seating area.
- 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.
Last month, 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. The approved lease outlines construction to begin around the end of September 2024. The ultimate goal is to have the stadium ready by kickoff for their 2026 season. New Mexico United owner Peter Trevisani said this:
“We have done some renderings, we needed to see what a site could look like to make sure it fit in with everyone’s plans: our plans, the city’s plans, Balloon Fiesta’s plans. It’s something that actually was symbiotic with the neighborhoods so putting it in a place that kept light to a minimum, reduced noise, kept it as low level as possible. … Our season generally starts off in March, and our goal is in March of 2026 to have our first game be at this facility.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Voters and the citizens of Albuquerque can take some comfort with the fact that the lease was approved on a 7 to 2 bi-partisan vote. In approving the lease on a 7 to 2 vote, the council set aside the hostility the conservative majority has towards Mayor Tim Keller and his attempted rush job to have the council approve the lease within one week of its introduction.
It was Mayor Tim Keller who called a press conference on Friday, September 29, to announce that the City of Albuquerque was going to enter into the lease and he wanted the City council to approve it within days. The blunt truth is that the press conference was so typical of Keller’s publicity seeking ways. 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, in order to take full credit for the lease.
After Keller’s photo, solo press conference, 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 spokesperson was relegated to issuing a statement. Keller also made it a point to say at his press conference “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 was not approved all the while Keller took credit for the lease.
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 who he has alienated repeatedly.
Least anyone forget, it was Mayor Tim Keller who made a major mistake when he tried to get a soccer stadium built when he first asked voters to approve $60 million in bonds to pay for downtown stadium. It was embarrassingly rejected by voters with a landslide vote. United Soccer Team owners for their part spent $1 Million on an ad campaign promoting the bonds. Soccer team owners learned their lesson with the election loss and came with an alternative plan for private financing and listened intently rather than trying to shove a plan for a taxpayer funded stadium down people’s throats.
WORK STILL REMAINS TO BE DONE ON LEASE TERMS
The Albuquerque City Council approving the lease was absolutely crucial for the continued existence of the New Mexico United Soccer team in Albuquerque. The USL Championship, the league in which United competes, has mandated that its franchises have permanent soccer-only stadium arrangements in place by 2026. Franchises unable to secure stadium deals will likely be relocated or forced to fold, as USLC member San Diego Loyal did at the end of the 2023 season. The soccer team currently plays home matches at Isotopes Park under a sub-lease arrangement. That agreement runs through next season but will not serve as a long-term solution.
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.
Notwithstanding the City Council approval, there a few concerns that still need to be addressed in the lease by the Keller Administration because the lease was presented to the city council as a take it or leave it proposition. Those concerns that can be addressed with and addendum to the lease include the following:
United will retain all revenues generated from use of the stadium for other types of events without clarification what those events would include, which presumably will include using it as an entertainment venue for concerts and entertainment events. There is no mention of securing city approval of other type of events or of other uses nor the stadium being allowed be “sub leased” to other tenants requiring city approval to generate income with the city sharing in the income from other events.
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 that needs to be answered is can the funding be diverted to an unrelated construction project or facility 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.
The lease should make it clear that in any event New Mexico United Soccer becomes dissatisfied with the location and seeks to move on to another community or state, it cannot simply sublease the stadium usage to another team or franchise for the remaining lease term and the original 30 year lease between the city and United becomes null and void with stadium ownership reverting to the city in full.
With any luck, Mayor Tim Keller will get motivated and ask for the additional terms so that way he can call another press conference and take all the credit.