EDITORIAL: Subsidy-free soccer plan a pitch taxpayers might support

Las Vegans might yet get a chance to show whether they would support a downtown professional soccer franchise. And this time they won’t be asked to pay for a new stadium.

As reported last week by the Review-Journal’s Alan Snel, a development group has met with city leaders and submitted the broad outlines of a proposal to convert Cashman Field, home of the Las Vegas 51s Triple-A baseball team, into a stadium capable of attracting an existing or expansion Major League Soccer franchise. AGP Capital, led by Scott Watt and Bob Schulman of Watt Companies and Jason Ader of Ader Investment Management, says it can accomplish this without the use of public funds.

Good. The plan likely has no chance of being realized otherwise.

Mr. Ader, who owns a Manhattan fund management company and is a director and shareholder of Las Vegas Sands Corp., first pitched bringing professional soccer to Las Vegas more than a year ago, at the same time the city was forcing taxpayers to partner with Findlay Sports & Entertainment and The Cordish Cos. on a brand-new Symphony Park soccer stadium as part of a MLS expansion bid.

But Mr. Ader was never given an opportunity to advance his competing proposal because the city was too invested in a plan that was doomed from the start. Mayor Carolyn Goodman led a slim majority of the City Council in passing a subsidy package worth about $100 million, including land, infrastructure and borrowed cash for stadium construction. Pile on tens of millions of dollars in interest costs on the construction bond, property tax abatements and the transfer of revenue from a $20 million, tax-funded parking garage and the rushed deal was a giveaway for the ages. The terms were so unfavorable to the public they inspired a petition to kill the stadium.

MLS saw this hot mess and blew up the bid earlier this year, eliminating Las Vegas from the league’s next round of expansion. Mr. Ader wisely waited for the ashes of that deal to scatter before re-emerging with what appears to be a much more viable proposal.

In addition to upgrading Cashman Field — a 32-year-old baseball stadium that’s among the most outdated in the minor leagues — AGP Capital proposes redeveloping the entire Las Vegas Boulevard corridor between Cashman Field and U.S. Highway 95, an especially sad stretch of shuttered businesses and blight. According to an Aug. 11 letter from AGP to the city, “Cashman Village” would include four-story multi-family buildings, offices, restaurants and retail within walking distance of the stadium. It’s an enticing vision.

The plan is far more complicated than it appears, however, because the 51s’ Cashman Field lease runs through 2022. AGP says it might first have to bring minor-league soccer to the city to prove Las Vegas is a viable MLS market, and that such a team would share Cashman with the 51s. But MLS isn’t likely to give Las Vegas a franchise without a soccer-first stadium.

That would require relocating the 51s. The baseball team’s new ownership group, which includes Summerlin developer The Howard Hughes Corp., wants to move the team to a new stadium next to Downtown Summerlin and Red Rock Resort in the western valley. Perhaps an AGP deal will accelerate those plans.

It’s hard to imagine such a high-dollar game of musical chairs playing out between multiple jurisdictions — Cashman Field is owned by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the land under the field is owned by the city, and the 51s want to move to unincorporated Clark County — without someone asking for a handout. For example, would AGP seek to own the renovated Cashman Field, Cashman Village and the land under it all outright? Would it seek property tax abatements? And would the 51s want a taxpayer-backed construction bond for a new stadium? If the AGP plan becomes any kind of binding agreement, the City Council must insist on clear language that provides ample time for public scrutiny and protects taxpayers from a backdoor fleecing.

It will be interesting to see whether Mayor Goodman, who desperately wants a sports franchise to anchor largely undeveloped Symphony Park, offers her full enthusiasm for a renovated Cashman Field, some two miles away from the new core that is slow to take shape. It will also be interesting to learn whether MLS considers the Las Vegas market poisoned by the previous stadium battle, during which the voices of subsidy opponents overwhelmed MLS backers. Would a subsidy-free deal create enough goodwill to win new fans?

It’s worth finding out. Let’s see specific terms.

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