Missions Owner to San Antonio: Play Ball or Else

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San Antonio Missions second baseman Noah Perio finishes out an inning at Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Missions second baseman Noah Perio finishes out an inning at Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium.

Get me rewrite on the happy headlines announcing Triple-A baseball coming to San Antonio. A more accurate prediction: Adios, Missions: City Faces Demand for New Downtown Stadium.

It was an odd development on the day Mayor Ivy Taylor handed the keys to City Hall to Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Coincidence? Perhaps. A challenge laid at the doorstep of the new mayor and City Council? Definitely.

Taylor had pushed early last year to bring Triple-A baseball to San Antonio, but her efforts to facilitate a deal lacked two key elements: an available downtown property and a public appetite to pick up the tab for a $75 million stadium.

Readers will recall that Dave Elmore, principal of the Elmore Sports Group, owners of the San Antonio Missions and several other minor league baseball franchises, declined to make any public commitment to contributing to that stadium funding.

Fast forward to the Elmore Group’s Wednesday announcement that the Missions will move to Amarillo in 2019 to play in a new, $45 million stadium. After 112 seasons of play in San Antonio and more than 100 of those seasons in the Double-A Texas League, the Missions will move up to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL).

In their place at Nelson Wolff Stadium, the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox will relocate to San Antonio, according to the Elmore press release. Don’t hold your breath. Why would Elmore move the Missions to another city and a Triple-A ballpark only to move the Sky Sox to Texas and into San Antonio’s aging Double-A ballpark?

The San Antonio Missions mascots Henry the Puffy Taco and Ballapeno pose for a photo with Mayor Ivy Taylor and SA Missions owner Dave Elmore marking Elmore's 30 years as owner of the minor league baseball team. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

Former Mayor Ivy Taylor, Missions owner Dave Elmore, and mascots Henry the Puffy Taco and Ballapeño.

If San Antonio wants Triple-A ball, it will need a Triple-A stadium. That would be great if the city could find an owner willing to bear a fair share of the cost. If that is Elmore, he needs to say so now.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a keen baseball player whose name adorns the ballpark on Highway 90 that the Missions have called home since 1994, was enthused by the news.

“It’s a positive step forward on Triple-A ball, a caliber of baseball that has major league players that go between Triple-A and major league, so it’s another degree of baseball. It’s great for San Antonio,” Wolff told the Rivard Report. “There may be some modifications to the stadium or an effort to build a new one. I’m not sure which way that will go.”

Wolff has suggested the current ballpark can be expanded and updated. That would still leave it far from downtown, accessible only by vehicle, and surrounded by … nothing.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, in one of his very first pronouncements since taking office, was right to contain his enthusiasm.

“As far as any new stadium is concerned, the Elmore Sports Group has not yet presented the City with a stadium development plan that includes a private investment team, nor has a specific site been selected for a new stadium development,” he said. “Until we see all of that, I have no further comment. We look forward to hearing more about their plans in the near future.”

Anyone who believes Elmore will settle for the 6,200-seat Wolff Stadium, which lies eight miles out of downtown, as a home for his Triple-A ball club is naive. It’s in the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, and it’s a dated facility. It might do for one season while a new ballpark is being built, but that’s a best-case scenario.

A marquee that reads 'Thank You Missions Fans' is seen from right field at Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A marquee that reads ‘Thank You Missions Fans’ is seen from right field at Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium.

What is far more likely is another announcement from the Elmore Group, sometime in the coming months, expressing regret that San Antonio is unwilling or unable to deliver a new Triple-A stadium downtown.

That will force Elmore to seek another home for his Colorado team, one more amenable to spending big bucks on a stadium for a very wealthy absentee owner.

Economists have long argued that using public funds to build sports facilities is of little benefit to anyone except the ownership group and season-ticket holders. Once constructed, new sports facilities generate little in the way of good jobs or economic development in the surrounding area. The Alamodome and AT&T Center have both failed to generate neighborhood development.

On the other hand, both venues have contributed significantly to the city’s profile, and both have brought major sporting and entertainment events that otherwise would not have come here, from the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Four to the annual Valero Alamo Bowl.

To make a downtown minor league baseball stadium work, City officials and developers would have to position it as the centerpiece of an entertainment district that could attract locals and visitors year-round.

There are two downtown sites that could provide the seven-acre footprint needed for a new minor league ballpark: One is property owned by Weston Urban near the San Pedro Creek redevelopment project.

The second spot is the site of the current Institute of Texan Cultures at the southeast corner of Hemisfair. University of Texas System officials have solicited redevelopment proposals for the site, but those will have to include a future home for the ITC, either on the site or in a land swap.

Neither option would be an inexpensive land acquisition or lease. That still leaves the cost of the stadium itself. Some sort of public-private proposal is – in theory – feasible, but it would almost certainly have to include a substantial cash contribution from the team owners. Elmore has never indicated a willingness to write that check.

Those who follow the business of sports more closely than I do say there are other Triple-A teams that could be enticed to come to San Antonio with the promise of a new stadium, and it’s possible the owners of those franchises would make more generous partners.

One is the Houston Astros, which probably would welcome moving the Triple-A Grizzlies here from Fresno, Calif. A second supposed target would be – I’m not making this up – the New Orleans Baby Cakes, formerly named the Zephyrs, owned by the Miami Marlins, a team that is said to be unhappy in its own outdated ballpark.

It will take the City and Centro San Antonio, if the same approach is used this year as last, to assess the market, and bring a recommendation to City Council and the public. There was little to no transparency in the effort led by Mayor Taylor. Voters are far more likely to keep an open mind this time if they aren’t made suspicious by closed-door government.

San Antonio shouldn’t have to beg out-of-town team owners to come here or stay here. We are a better city than that now, one that should be open to partnerships, but not to handouts.

The loss of the San Antonio Missions and what I believe is the Elmore Group’s unstated demand for a publicly funded Triple-A ballpark will give Mayor Nirenberg and his colleagues on the Council a good opportunity to help fashion a fair deal, either with Elmore or with another owner.

Nirenberg has pledged a new level of transparency in the city government. This will be a good test. With the right private sector partners, the City and County ought to be able to assemble a plan that spurs downtown development, offers an exciting new sports and entertainment destination, and is fair to taxpayers.

If they can do that, people will invest.

20 thoughts on “Missions Owner to San Antonio: Play Ball or Else

  1. Stop worrying about sports teams that lack loyalty to a city and its people. Invest the money in education and infrastructure.

    • Agreed! How about we spend our tax dollars on things that will actually lift the quality of life in San Antonio. Education and infrastructure. Baseball doesn’t do anything to help San Antonio and San Antonionan’s in the long run. AAA baseball? Not enough people care.

  2. There are a lot of moving parts about a baseball team/stadium, ITC (the building and the function), the UTSA Hemisfair site, and City taxes.
    Don’t confuse the 2016 UT RFQ that specified a landswap and the continued function of the ITC mission in a different location with the 2017 UT RFP that only includes a leaseback option but not a guarantee for the museum. At this time, the future of the ITC museum in San Antonio is not clear. The UT system wants to reasonably monetize their downtown real estate asset.
    The October 2016 baseball study highlighted the TIF/TIRZ option to pay for a new Stadium, and the UTSA downtown property was added to the new TIRZ 34 that CoSA created in February 2017 to fund Hemisfair development via increased value from property improvements.
    Don’t forget that there was also money included in the recent bond for Hemisfair streets and improvements.
    None of these items are necessarily related to each other, but where and how a public/private partnership comes up with $75 million and 7 acres of prime real estate could be interesting.

  3. Moved here from Houston last year. Minute Maid Park in NE downtown was a private/public venture whereby about a dozen local companies created a partnership, provided an interest free loan…10 years. Houstonians approved $250M bond in 1996…opened in 2000…World Series 2005.
    I realize the stark economic differences in the two cities, but surely something could be created to inject new life into the Central Business District. The venue should allow for non-baseball events without conflicting with those at the LoveBoat.
    Don’t forget the mandatory retractable roof.

    • Houston and Dallas are both some of the most debt-burdened cities in the country… While they appear to be “doing more”, they can’t afford it and it will catch up to them. The business owners providing a loan to the city means that the stadium was still funded by the city, albeit at no interest, but for a very short period of time… The successful stadiums in urban settings have been those with a true private/public partnership whereby both groups contribute money to the construction of the stadium.

  4. I don’t get the need for downtown?? I had trouble getting volunteers for Folklife with a major concern to find/pay for parking. Another venue will add to the already heavy traffic around downtown. Wolff stadium is not close to downtown or located near anything? It is 6 miles (<10 min) from my D/T place @Alamo and 35 and easy to get to off of Hwy 90, not far from 410. Lackland AFB seems like a pretty significant something. Always cool when a C-5 flies over during games. I could go on, but I'll sign off noting that fixing up the existing stadium has to be much cheaper than building a new one.

    • It has to be downtown or it will continue to attract less than stellar crowds…being in the heart of the city brings so many new opportunities even outside of baseball – like outdoor concerts. .your volnteers were just making excuses, parking it getting better and there has never been an issue attracting 50k plus fans for the Dome’s major events, this won’t be nearly that size.

  5. I realize that Nelson Wolff Stadium and its location is not ideal for sports’ owners, but I took umbrage from you stating it was “…surrounded by … nothing.” There are plenty of homes with good people nearby.
    I understand the context of that statement and believe I follow your thought well throughout, but every once in awhile when I perceive this kind of attitude of other parts of our great city from other parts of our city, it irks me. You could have picked better wording to convey your thoughts on the infeasibility of the location, sir.

    Having vented, thank you for the vast majority of this article, and mentioning the downtown SA suggestions. I would be unhappy to see the Missions-name permanently leave because no Triple-A club would pony up enough dough in a fair public-private stadium deal. To second the motion from “Joe” above @ 12:24pm, Hwy 90 is not far from 410, it seems wide enough for Triple-A traffic, and is also near Hwy 151 and any potential Far Westsiders off that road and the 1604 residential complexes. I also have to believe upgrading The Wolff would be much less expensive.

    And just why isn’t the Alamodome a good place for Triple-A baseball?

    I hope Mayor Nirenberg can team up with Judge Wolff to play some sort of “good cop-bad cop” duo while negotiating a fair deal for upgrading an existing or building a new stadium, whether downtown or off a major highway. Of course, I’ll look to you, RivardReport.com, to keep on top of ’em so I can help hold ’em accountable.

    • Jonathan, I did not mean to refer to or disparage area neighborhoods. I was thinking of other entertainment amenities within the immediate walkable surroundings. My apologies for any inference otherwise. –RR

  6. What a trade…cultural education for Triple A
    baseball.
    I like attending Missions games occasionally. I also like that they are not in a congested area. Wolfe Stadium is just fine with me.

  7. What about getting a Triple A Team and UTSA to go into a new stadium. Being UTSA is now D1..Tgat way it gets a multi purpose use.

  8. Brooks city base should be the new home to a stadium….I37 south is a wide highway and straight into downtown….Everyone leaving the stadium would have to travel through downtown…Brooks city base has a lot of places to eat and close to parks and the highway…would be the best place..

  9. The great ballparks of the country are all in “downtowns” or in other urban areas that, in San Antonio, might pass for a downtown. Any baseball stadium or stadium of any other kind should be downtown.

    That said, I have zero interest in AA baseball and I don’t know anyone in town that does (baseball fans included). AAA is not much better and any stadium deal is clearly a hand-out to a private business. It’s no different with the Spurs or most other professional teams, but AAA baseball doesn’t rise to that level.

    Whatever big picture rationale exists for subsidizing professional sports teams (city pride, tourism, whatever), it doesn’t work for minor league baseball and to accept it is wasting money and setting our collective sights too low.

  10. An interesting and informative article. Just one quibble. The local minor league team in the 1960’s was the Bullets, a farm club for the Pirates. In the 70’s we had the Dodgers, a farm team for LA. The missions have not had 120 consecutive seasons.

  11. The lesson not learned by Houstonians is that publically funded stadiums provide huge earnings for the owners while providing minimum wage jobs for unskilled employees. Just a swell payoff for the taxed citizens. The owners should pay for the land, the stadium, and bringing teams to the city. After all, the owners keep the lion’s share of the profits. They just don’t want to pay for anything.

  12. Wolff Stadium could be enlarged along with a package including a TIF zone for development, and the possibility of light rail from the Alamodome “switching station” to the Ball Park. Light rail to and from that area would probably get rail off to a good start.

    • You have to be kidding, right?

      Your logic goes: San Antonio doesn’t have the density and setup to support light rail to downtown, like most places with light rail do it, because nearly no one works downtown. So instead, lets built it to a dilapidated AA ball park with games that really no one goes to for a team the owner has already said is moving.

      Does anyone really wonder why the public is generally not in support of light rail?

  13. Wow,such negativity,no wonder our city never materializes into anything great. Come on people stop holding back our beautiful city from ultimately being a very great city. I think a triple a ballpark would be perfect downtown,it’s obviously growing, this would just add to what has been missing for so long now.

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