By Richard Webner | @RWebner | Heron contributor
Several local business leaders are interested in buying stakes in the San Antonio Missions minor-league baseball team, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff said in separate interviews, while declining to say who the leaders were.
They both stated that having the Missions under local ownership would be key for creating a public-private partnership to build a new baseball stadium for the team, as the development firm Weston Urban seeks to buy land for a stadium near the northern end of San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
In 2018, the year after he took office, Nirenberg said he wouldn’t support using public money for a stadium, but if the double-A baseball team came under local control that could change things, he said in a phone interview.
He recalls meeting with representatives of Weston Urban a few months ago and being asked: Would there be any appetite for a public-private partnership to build a new stadium?
“What I said was, if there are local owners involved in the franchise, that certainly changes the calculus and presents a more encouraging, more promising prospect,” Nirenberg said. He added, “There has to be a clear, demonstrated public benefit. I think with local ownership and the long-term future of the Missions, that’s more easily demonstrated.”
He emphasized that his conversation with Weston Urban “wasn’t any kind of formal meeting.” The firm’s representatives didn’t mention the site near San Pedro Creek, he said.
“They’re not the only group that’s looking around,” he said. “There’s so many different possible permutations of a stadium coming to fruition that anything at this point, until we see a proposal, is purely speculative.”
In a phone interview Friday morning, Wolff said he was under the belief that “prominent businesspeople” were in “active discussions” with the Missions’ current owner, the Elmore Sports Group, based in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
A representative of Elmore didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. The Missions franchise has no comment at this time, spokesman Jeremy Sneed said in an email. Randy Smith, Weston Urban’s president, also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In explaining the importance of local ownership, Wolff referenced the San Antonio Spurs and its local owners, including Peter J. Holt.
“It kept the team here,” Wolff said. “Just recently, Peter Holt had to put out a strong statement to make everyone understand the Spurs are committed here.”
The effort to establish a new footing for the Missions comes after local leaders, Wolff in particular, have struggled for more than a decade to find a new home for the team. Its current ballpark, the 28-year-old, city-owned Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium on the West Side, is widely seen as inadequate. In 2018, the Express-News sports columnist Roy Bragg described it as “a bare-bones baseball park that’s outdated and out of the way.”
[ Exclusive: Weston Urban pursuing land for potential sports stadium | June 30, 2022 ]
Building a new stadium is a “near-term priority if we want to have a long-term future” for the team, Nirenberg said—especially as Major League Baseball has eliminated dozens of minor-league affiliates in recent years, and has updated its standards for ballparks in order to make them “better suited for professional athletes,” according to Ballparkdigest.com.
“We’ve been approached about the need to find a new suitable home for the Missions considering the more stringent standards of Major League Baseball,” Nirenberg said. “Major League Baseball is paying close attention to how communities rectify them. The minor league system itself has shrunk; there’s not as many franchises now that are affiliated with the majors. And those are going to be more closely-guarded, valuable agreements.”
Nirenberg would want the stadium to be built on a site with good access to transit, where it can “create a sense of place, where people will congregate.”
“That list starts with downtown,” he said. “Does that mean that there isn’t that opportunity elsewhere? No. It’s just a little bit harder to pull off.”
Wolff said that sites outside downtown are being considered, including near the University of Texas at San Antonio’s main campus on the northside, adding that he preferred a downtown site.
“We’ll see what happens. Hang in there. We’re crossing our fingers,” Wolff said. “We’ve been very frustrated.”
It could be difficult to build support for devoting public dollars to a baseball stadium within City Council. An effort made in 2016 by then-Mayor Ivy Taylor to form a public-private partnership for a downtown stadium failed without much support from council members, according to reporting from the San Antonio Express-News.
Last week, District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo told the Heron that a baseball stadium wasn’t a project he was “focused on,” saying that the city had other priorities such as rising housing costs.
Nirenberg said that a public-private partnership might be formed that would “help advance some of those causes.”
“What any non-basic infrastructure investment needs to demonstrate is that it’s not a zero-sum game. If it was, then we wouldn’t be doing anything but streets and sidewalks,” he said. “If a public-private partnership were to be viable from an economic standpoint and from a political standpoint, it has to demonstrate that it’s going to lift up the other aspects of our mission to improve this city and increase prosperity across the board.”
He said that he and Wolff “have been on the same page” on the issue of a new stadium, “just kind of fielding speculative calls.” In the early 2000s, the city of San Antonio and Bexar County competed against each other in luring a Spurs arena onto property each entity owned. The county won with land it owned next to Freeman Coliseum, with promises that a new arena would also be an economic generator for the East Side. Since it opened in 2003, the year the Spurs won their second NBA championship, it has hardly delivered on that promise—if at all.
“I do think that for it to be viable, the county and the city, regardless of the roles we play, we need to be on the same page with how we move forward,” Nirenberg said.
[ Related: A stadium or a new waterway? Leaders present competing visions for site in west downtown | July 1, 2022 ]
The site where Weston Urban is seeking to buy land for a stadium—the southern half of the block bounded by Kingsbury, Camaron, West Martin and North Flores streets—is in the proposed path of The Link, a project championed by Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert that would create a linear waterway and walking path connecting the River Walk and San Pedro Creek. Nirenberg said he wasn’t very familiar with the project but he considered it a “great vision.”
“Conceptually, I support it,” he said. “I agree that the creeks and the River Walk, and frankly all of the urban assets that we’ve invested in over time, ought to be connected to all parts of our city as much as possible.”
Asked whether he thought The Link could attract the political support necessary for such a large project—the initial cost estimate is $80 million—Nirenberg struck a hopeful note, noting that the ongoing rehabilitation of San Pedro Creek into a 2.2-mile walking park seemed far-fetched when first proposed.
“I can tell you this: San Pedro Creek was a vision before it became a project,” he said. “I remember in my early days on council, people wondering if this could really be pulled off. I think great projects begin with big ideas, and you have to have some degree of faith and confidence that you can pull it off. I wouldn’t cut short a conversation now, because it’s a great vision.”
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter
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