Can MLS Repeat H-E-B Center Success?

When Anthony Precourt announced in October he wanted to move his Major League Soccer franchise, Columbus Crew SC from Ohio to Central Texas, it was clear the entire move largely hinged on one thing: a stadium.

Settling on a location in downtown Austin — something Precourt said was crucial to the a move to Central Texas — has proven a difficult task. The Austin City Council voted unanimously to look at potential sites for a stadium in November and released eight potential sites for a stadium and practice fields on Tuesday.

Precourt’s company, Precourt Sports Ventures, has previously stated that it wanted a stadium within the ‘urban core’ of the city. Three of the proposed sites are, but two are not: 10414 McKalla Place and the Travis County Expo Center.

The most recent and successful example of a stadium built in Central Texas is a little more than 20 miles north of downtown in Cedar Park.

The arena now known as the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park broke ground in 2008 and officially opened in 2009. It hosts two minor league teams in addition to a regular slate of concerts, live performances and family shows.

How it worked

There were several tries at building an arena in Cedar Park in the early 2000s before the final plans for what became the H-E-B Center were approved.

It was during a council retreat in 2004 that the prospect came up once again. The first vote, which would fund the build largely from property taxed failed. The second, which would fund it using money from 4A sales tax and wouldn’t affect the property taxes, passed.

“The community was really behind it and at that point, I really felt we had movement, an idea and a way to properly execute it without putting our taxpayers at a huge risk,” Cedar Park Mayor Matt Powell said. “We had a sustainable growing tax fund to put to it.”

Then focus shifted to how actually construct the building.

The council went to different sites across the country to get a feel of what they wanted and hired John Frew’s company Frew Development Group to act as the liaison between the city and those building the arena.

Originally, the city set the budget at $42 million, but Frew — who already owned and operated an arena similar in size — said they should aim higher and recommended finding a partner. They brought in Hicks Sports Group, owner of the NHL’s Dallas Stars.

Hicks contributed $13 million and agreed to move its AHL team from Iowa to Texas to fill the arena.

“It was touch and go whether or not we were going to get a deal with the Hicks people,” Frew said. “It came down to the last hour. The economy was about to implode at the time. That was a huge challenge. It made a difference having a city that had leadership. They knew what they wanted and were bold.”

The actual construction of the stadium went about as smoothly as it could.

At the time, China was preparing for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and building buildings at a furious rate. That threw off the global price for steel. Powell said they were advised to buy all their steel one week and had they waited, it would’ve thrown the budget into chaos.

Another potential snag was avoided when contractors determined that the site had just the right amount of dirt, avoiding what could have been a half-million dollar cost to either bring in or ship out dirt from the site.

“It was a good combination of (Frew) knowing how to build it and us knowing our residents well and listening to them say this is what I expect an arena in Cedar Park to be,” Powell said. “We really believed that our city and region would support top-level professional hockey, and they have.”

The Texas Stars hockey team is right around the middle of the league in attendance. The H-E-B Center seats more than 8,500 for a hockey game and the Stars averaged 5,111 during the 2016-17 season, ranking 18th of 30 teams in the league.

“We convinced the city early one that you don’t make money operating these things,” Frew said. “The single best thing we did at the outset was find someone who will operate it in a way that the city doesn’t lose money, but it gets the benefit of having the amenity.”

A bold future

Powell has a vision for the area surrounding the H-E-B Center. He sees it developing into an arena district with bars and restaurants as well as lodging and offices.

In recent years, the are near the arena has seen rapid growth. Whole Food 365 and a host of retail shopping and food options opened in The Parke retail center. Several hotels are already open and a new hotel is being built nearby.

“We knew when we did this project that the market wasn’t there,” Powell said. “Cedar Park continues to do things cities our size either cannot to will not do. The arena was a big, bold step that our residents charged us with doing. It’s continuing to pay dividends.”

Cedar Park Director of Economic Development Phil Brewer has spent more than 30 years in Central Texas. He spent 10 years with the State of Texas before moving to Round Rock where he helped to construct Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express.

The H-E-B Center ended up coming in on time and under budget at $55 million, which Brewer said would equate to $65 to $70 million in today’s economy.

Powell said building the arena was not only good for Cedar Park, but it’s been good for region bringing professional sports and entertainment to town on a larger scale. He added he would love to be involved in more projects like it in the future.

“We don’t consider the next thing competition, we consider it the next big thing for our region,” Powell said.

“Cedar Park was able to do something that was beneficial to our residents and all of Central Texas. Whoever gets the next big thing, anything that we can do to help them, for my part, I’ll be happy to do it. It’s good for everybody,” said Powell.

Soccer in Cedar Park is nothing new. When the Austin Aztex were looking for a place to play, the team had conversations with Cedar Park.

Powell had a warm reception to the prospect of MLS in Cedar Park.

“We’re open to all these opportunities,” he said. “If it doesn’t make sense, then it doesn’t make sense. We’ve proven through some of the things that we’ve attempted that we’re willing to have all those conversations. If it works great, and if not, we’re going to help whoever is in the best position.”