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Developer Wants New Soccer Stadium Built In West Louisville

Jacob Ryan

The East Downtown neighborhood in Houston is booming.

Microbreweries are pouring into the area, stretches of new townhouses are taking the place of vacant homes, and abandoned warehouses are being transformed into office spaces.

The slow transition from a blighted, post-industrial corner of Texas' largest city into an artsy, hip destination district began about five years ago. That was before the BBVA Compass Stadium was built in the neighborhood, said Anton Sinkewich, executive director of the East Downtown Management District.

Sinkewich said once the stadium was opened and the Houston Dynamo professional soccer team began playing there — drawing nearly 20,000 fans for games — the neighborhood started booming.

"Not that it brought more with it, but it brought the entire region's attention onto the area," he said.

That's the same premise Bill Weyland has for building a new soccer stadium in west Louisville.

Weyland, a Louisville developer known for revamping downtown fixtures such as the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Henry Clay and Whiskey Row Lofts, said city leaders should consider locating a new pro soccer stadium west of Ninth Street.

"I think it's very critical for us to have a magnet in the West End," Weyland said. "We have to create reasons for a much more dynamic attraction that draws people to the west."

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Weyland points to Houston as an example of how a stadium can help boost a struggling area — particularly one where there is already a focus on revitalization.

"It is critical that we use our potential magnets to leverage economic development," he said.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer earlier this week pledged to begin studying the feasibility of building a new soccer stadium in the city. Louisville City FC currently plays home games on the baseball diamond at Louisville Slugger Field.

But the soccer team's partnership with the Louisville Bats baseball team has been tense at times. And Wayne Estopinal, the soccer team's general manager, has repeatedly said it will need its own stadium as interest in the franchise grows. In addition, the United Soccer League requires teams to have their own stadiums, and Louisville City FC would need one by 2020 to continue to be a part of the league.

Estopinal has said playing games at Slugger Field costs too much to be viable moving forward. And if the city is serious about one day being home to a Major League Soccer team, a standalone stadium is a necessity, he said.

Speculation has swirled over where a venue could be built. The Fischer administration hasn't leaked any details. Estopinal has said there are a number of feasible sites, but he, too, has declined to provide any further information. And Weyland also declined to get specific about where exactly a stadium should go.

Steve Poe, a board member of One West, a group aiming to fuel revitalization of western Louisville neighborhoods, agreed that a soccer stadium could have a positive impact on areas west of downtown. He stressed, however, that it's imperative the development fits within the existing environment. The details, he said, can make or break an idea.

Plopping a 10,000- to 20,000-seat stadium in the middle of Russell or Shawnee may seem like a noble idea. But if you try to force a historically residential area to alter its identity — to handle a rage of traffic on game nights, for example — or if you displace longtime residents to make room for a parking lot, the results can be dire, Poe said.

"In general, I think it's something that's certainly worth studying, and I think it can have a positive impact on west Louisville, if it's located in the right area and designed to fit into its environment," he said.

Still, there is one answer to resolve what Poe calls "decades of neglect" in west Louisville. A stadium alone won't bring swaths of residents out of poverty.

A recent report from American Public Media's Marketplace showed the benefits of a sports arena are largely a product of the development's details. Arenas alone don't equal jobs and new businesses, Andrew Zimbalist, a economics professor at Smith College, told Marketplace.

Mark Rosentraub, sports management professor at the University of Michigan, has said arenas or stadiums must be part of a larger redevelopment plan if they want to bring money into a city. And British author Alex Flynn has noted that an English Premier League soccer team provides nearly the same economic impact as a supermarket.

Janet Kelly, executive director of the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville, said those analyses are on target.

"Evidence suggests that the economic development impact of a stadium is practically nil," Kelly said.

Beyond a spark of increased retail activity within a few blocks of the venue, and a few handfuls of jobs inside, the economic impact of a stadium alone is "a wash," she said.

"It’s only when people from outside the region come into the region to attend the games that a multiplier effect is created," she said.

Sankewich, in Houston, said the traffic that comes into the neighborhood has been good for visibility. And that visibility can turn into ideas, which can turn into investments.

The traffic alone, though, isn't enough to sustain the businesses year-round, he said.

"The amount of events that take place at a stadium is not enough on its own to support a bar or restaurant," he said. "There needs to be some neighborhood traffic that preexists or comes along with it."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.