Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Owners of the San Antonio Missions baseball club would like a new stadium as they make the jump next year to Triple-A, the highest level of minor league baseball.
While the team has met privately with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who opposes funding such a project with public money, the Missions have not publicly discussed their plans. Estimates for constructing a stadium start at $75 million.
Nirenberg has challenged the club and its longtime owner Dave Elmore to bring forth a proposal for the City to review. Missions President Burl Yarbrough has said the team is working to do so, but the team has been reluctant to say anything beyond that. Elmore and his son, D.G. Elmore, did not respond to the Rivard Report's requests for comment.
Branch Rickey, president of the Pacific Coast League, the league to which the Missions are moving next season, has seen more than a dozen stadiums built or undergo major renovations since he was hired in 1998. He said he is confident San Antonio will find a home for the Triple-A team.
“In my experience with many previous stadiums, the challenge initially looks daunting, but when a funding model is agreed to and the stadium is completed, the impact on the community and surrounding area begins to take shape," Rickey said. "Often the reaction from municipal leadership is euphoria. The problem is, you can’t time-travel.”
The Elmore Sports Group (ESG), which owns the Missions and several other minor league baseball teams, is moving the current version of the Missions, which competes at the Double-A level, to Amarillo after this season. ESG is moving the Colorado Springs Sky Sox to San Antonio where they will take the Missions name and compete in the PCL.
Elmore has said from the beginning of the process that a new stadium is an integral part of his plan to transition the Missions and San Antonio to Triple-A. Some have suggested that the club's current home, Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium, could be upgraded, but the stadium's location on the city's Southwest Side is seen by some as problematic because it's not more centrally located.
City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), in whose district Wolff Stadium is located, believes it's time for a more open dialogue on the subject with more voices and ideas being heard. Brockhouse said he would like for City Council to be involved in discussions with the team instead of those talks being held behind closed doors solely with the mayor and his team.
Nirenberg opposes any public funding for a stadium, including incentives that have been used by multiple developers and private businesses for a variety of projects around downtown in recent years. In an interview, the mayor said most of the City incentive programs are aimed at developing housing in and near the urban core.
“There is a big difference in a taxpayer subsidy of a private minor league baseball stadium, and housing development that mostly comes from non-monetary incentives,” Nirenberg said. “There is a stark difference between that kind of incentivized development in both scale and purpose.”
Brockhouse said he, too, believes asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a stadium for the Missions is a nonstarter. But he is more open to examining what might help get the ball rolling for a downtown stadium in terms of incentives offered to the club or a third-party developer.
“If we’re willing to give millions of dollars in tax incentives for a credit union or a bank to move two miles, an organization that has profitability of hundreds of millions of dollars,” Brockhouse said, "why wouldn’t we examine the opportunity for the Missions to have something similar? What tools do we have in place where we can get creative on incentives and financing to help out? The City controls a lot of those taxing entities.
"All of those things are part of the conversation. Frankly, I just want to figure out what things can be in place. We’ve got to at least have a conversation.”
Some possible funding sources could come in the form of fees or tourism taxes such as events admissions fees, and hotel occupancy, car rental, parking, and restaurant taxes. Selling stadium naming rights also could help offset at least a portion of the construction cost.
Brockhouse said the City owes it to the Missions to put forth a good-faith effort to work toward a downtown stadium because the ball club has partnered with the City for decades. The Missions are a charter member of the Texas League dating back to the late-1800s, and the team and its previous iterations have called San Antonio home, with only a few brief interruptions, for nearly 130 years.
“If we don’t take care of people who have taken care of us over the years, what do we have incentives for?” said Brockhouse, who is a frequent critic of the mayor.
The idea for a downtown stadium has long been discussed in San Antonio because downtown stadiums are generally preferred to stadiums located outside the urban core.
Even Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, for whom the Missions’ ballpark is named, said he believes the best solution for the ball club, the City, and the County long-term is a new stadium located in or near downtown.
“I think the best idea would be if they could get it downtown, but it’s very, very hard to do,” Wolff said. “They’ve been working on it for over a year, and they haven’t found the right place for it. So it’s very hard to do, but I do think that is the best solution. It’s not easy and it’s very expensive. So hopefully they can find something that will work. It would be better to be downtown.”
In the meantime, Wolff believes the 24-year-old stadium that bears his name could serve as an adequate placeholder or even a long-term solution with major renovations that would add seats, suites, and other amenities to bring it more in line with other PCL facilities, such as Dell Diamond in Round Rock and Southwest University Park in El Paso.
Wolff Stadium has 6,200 fixed seats and a grass berm beyond the left and centerfield wall that could serve an additional 3,000 fans.
A downtown stadium seemed to have momentum several years ago when former Mayor Ivy Taylor threw her support behind the idea. Taylor met with Elmore, who made it clear the team would not pay for the stadium but might play a part in some level of investment.
“What typically happens is the team does invest money in part of the facilities,” Elmore said at the time. “It could be in concessions, it could be signage, it’s just usually a variety of alternative ways that the team gets involved [financially].”
The stadium lost momentum near the end of Taylor’s term as mayor when it became clear there was a lack of interest from private partners.
A 2016 feasibility study done by Barrett Sports Group for the City recommended building a stadium with 8,000 to 8,500 fixed seats and a total capacity of between 9,000 and 9,500, which would include standing-room-only and berm seating. The study noted that, at that time, the Missions had the lowest average attendance in the Texas League over the previous five seasons.
The study noted seven possible sites for a stadium in or near downtown. At least one of them is likely no longer a possibility, with San Antonio Independent School District moving to build a new central office adjacent to Fox Tech High School’s campus.
The Fox Tech site was considered a Tier 3 site in the 2016 baseball feasibility study, which grouped possible locations according to their suitability, with Tier 1 being the most suitable.
When he met with Taylor in 2016, Elmore made it clear in media interviews that a new stadium was central to his bringing Triple-A baseball to the city.
With the idea of a downtown stadium in limbo two years later, Nirenberg said he does not believe San Antonio is in jeopardy of losing its longtime baseball partner in the future if the issue continues to drag on without resolution.
“The Missions still receive tremendous fan and city support,” Nirenberg said. “We’ll continue to do that. We’re actively interested in their future here. So, no, that’s not a concern.”
Wolff also isn’t losing sleep at night over the idea.
‘We will be the largest Triple-A franchise in the nation, from a media market and overall market,” Wolff said. “So, he could pull the franchise out and go somewhere else. He could do that, but then this market would be open for a team. I don’t think that is likely, but you never know.”
Brockhouse said he does believe it’s at least a possibility that the team will eventually leave without a new stadium. He'd like to see the matter pursued more actively by the mayor and City Council.
“If the Missions can find a home here, by all means – they’ve made it very clear they would love to be here,” he said. “San Antonio would love to have them here. ... If it came to it, and it didn’t work out, and the Missions had to leave, and we couldn’t get Triple-A baseball here ... I would respect the Missions to have to do what is best for them. In business, that’s the fair play, but you’ve got to give it your best shot. ...
"Not getting in the fight, not giving it a shot, not trying to get creative is not acceptable. We’ve seen that on multiple things that come through this council. We don’t get in the fight on things, and we’re missing opportunities right and left.”