Months of debate boil down to Election Day for $1 billion stadium

As Arlington voters streamed into the Tarrant County subcourthouse for early voting last week, the presidential showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only contentious race on their mind.

Arlington residents are also deciding whether to approve public funding for a new retractable-roof baseball stadium for the Texas Rangers — a campaign that has generated its own heat. Supporters and opponents turning out at the polls to sway voters have accused each other of getting rowdy, even confrontational in some cases.

Observers say the stadium election could be close. City officials rushed to get the initiative on this week’s ballot, figuring that the larger turnout for a presidential election would benefit a new stadium. But the strain of the national campaign has brought with it an anti-establishment sentiment, perhaps trimming that advantage.

“I did think it was going to be a blowout, but I don’t think so anymore,” said University of Texas at Arlington political science professor Allan Saxe, adding that the presidential campaigns have “made people more cognizant of government and politics.”

Voters on both sides turned out last week.

Sarah Patterson said she voted against the new stadium because she doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“I don’t see a point in spending money that doesn’t need to be spent,” she said, leaving the subcourthouse on Abram Street. Not a big Rangers fan? “Oh, I am. I just kind of like it how it is now.”

But Juddie Rice echoed the concerns of city officials, who struck a deal with the Rangers in May to keep them in Arlington through the 2053 season — effectively a 30-year lease tacked onto the current lease of Globe Life Park in Arlington.

If the stadium proposition fails, she said, “I just think it opens it up for Dallas or Frisco to talk to them. I want to keep them.”

The stadium deal

Voters are being asked to extend the city’s half-cent sales tax, 2 percent hotel-occupancy tax and 5 percent car-rental tax to fund as much as half of the estimated $1 billion stadium cost, with the city’s share capped at $500 million. The city now is using those revenues to pay down the remaining $155 million debt it owes for its share of AT&T Stadium’s construction cost.

The vote also would allow for a maximum 10 percent admission tax and $3 parking tax for the Rangers’ use, which opponents have criticized because the city legally could have used those taxes for its share. It approved the same deal for the Cowboys.

Vote Yes! Keep the Rangers, a political action committee that includes Mayor Jeff Williams as chairman and all City Council and school board members, has said the Rangers should get to use that revenue since they will take responsibility for maintenance and operation of the stadium.

Vote Yes! campaign manager Brian Mayes said Saturday he feels optimistic about the early voting.

“Our turnout, with the exception of the first couple of days, has been extremely positive,” Mayes said. “But we’re not taking anything for granted. We’ll be making phone calls and knocking on doors right up until the end of voting on Tuesday.”

Peggy Rudd and her husband, Bill Gaut, who distributed bright-red fliers denouncing the new stadium to thousands of Arlington homes, showed up at the courthouse with a bright-yellow addendum containing more criticism, including a shot at the roof: “The Rangers have played ball here 44 years. Suddenly now, it’s too hot.”

Rudd said she was seeing a connection between voters on the stadium and presidential race.

“We’re finding that when they vote for Trump they vote against the stadium,” Rudd said. “I guess they don’t like seeing government joining forces with rich dudes.”

Election timing

Cal Jillson, an SMU political science professor, said a national election is generally not the best place for a local proposition such as a new stadium.

“Normally, if you’ve got a local issue you want to hold it in a local election, with local candidates and issues that people can focus on,” he said.

Jillson agrees with the opponents who say that there is little threat of the Rangers leaving if they don’t win the vote, noting that the team is tied to a lease that doesn’t expire until after the 2023 season. The Rangers have never publicly threatened to leave, although a team representative did hold preliminary talks with Dallas officials about a covered stadium.

Despite the political environment, Saxe predicts that Arlington voters will once again approve a new stadium. “The ‘Yes’ vote will win, but it won’t be overwhelmingly so,” he said.

Gary and Juanice Young said they made their decision to support the new stadium after processing all they heard and read about the proposition, including a “gazillion mailers.” But they didn’t want to reveal their votes for president.

“I’m not even sure we voted the same,” Gary Young said.

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

A closer look

Would the new stadium raise my taxes?

Proponents say there will be no new taxes or tax increases. The funding engine would be a half-cent sales tax, hotel-motel tax and car-rental tax already being used to pay for the AT&T Stadium. Voters will decide whether to extend those taxes. Opponents say that is tantamount to a tax increase.


When would the new stadium be built?

Construction could begin as early as 2017, with a grand opening for the 2020 season, the city says. Currently, officials are working on a plan to restructure the city’s share of the AT&T Stadium debt — about $155 million.


What’s wrong with Globe Life Park?

Nothing as far as beauty and function. But the Rangers want a retractable-roof, climate-controlled stadium, which they hope will boost attendance on hot summer days, and maybe even help recruit more players. But most significant financially, a rain- and heat-proof stadium would open the door to special events that wouldn’t face weather-related cancellations.


What’s going to happen to Globe Life Park if the new stadium is approved?

The master agreement between the city and the Rangers gives the ballclub exclusive authority to demolish part or all of the former Ballpark in Arlington, which opened in 1994 and was paid off in 20 years, a decade early. Recently the Rangers and developer Cordish Cos. announced they are seriously looking at a variety of ways to repurpose the stadium.


How would a new stadium benefit the economy?

The city touts a study projecting an annual $77.5 million economic impact in Arlington and $137.6 million benefit overall for Tarrant County. Opponents say that’s exaggerated, citing track records of other stadiums around the country that didn’t spur the anticipated level of development. Proponents say the growth of city sales tax revenues and commerce since the current ballpark and AT&T Stadium opened proves that stadiums work in Arlington — even though neither stadium has spun off a ring of promised retail development. Last month, however, construction began on the first such project, the $250 million Texas Live! entertainment complex and high-rise hotel next to Globe Life Park.

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