MLS executives and pols are pushing for arena in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, but deal is a long way from done.
Fans watch the Ecuador-Greece match – the first ever soccer game held at Citi Field – last summer.
Queens has a big appetite for world-class soccer – and ticket demand for Wednesday’s Chile-Ecuador friendly at Citi Field is proof – but can the borough support a Major League Soccer franchise and a $300-million stadium?
MLS executives and elected officials who are pushing for construction of the facility in Flushing Meadows Corona Park say yes — but they acknowledge the deal is far from done, and it might be years before a MLS team plays its first home game in north-central Queens. Despite reports suggesting construction could begin early next year, the proposal still has to clear environmental and legislative obstacles.
There’s also potential for conflict with local residents, who are concerned about the loss of parkland and opposed to commercial development of the park.
“These stadiums and the process take time,” said MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche, describing the negotiations as “exploratory.”
“It’s still an ongoing process right now.”
Still, Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director, Jack Friedman, is so optimistic about the completion of a 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium, he told the Daily News, “It’s definitely going to happen.
“It’s going to be a great, great thing.”
The stadium, plotted for the section of the park called The Fountain of Planets, would be the home field for the city’s first major professional soccer team since the Cosmos – the team that introduced Americans to such stars as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer – moved to New Jersey’s Giants Stadium in 1976.
League officials want to bring a team to the Big Apple to create a rivalry with the New York Red Bulls, the MLS team that plays its home games in Harrison, N.J. The team would draw fans from Corona and nearby neighborhoods dominated by soccer-crazy Latino fans, who last year did their part to sellout an Ecuador-Greece friendly at Citi Field.
The Red Bulls have struggled to draw fans to their $250 million stadium, and their presence hasn’t been the financial boon Harrison anticipated. The small industrial town has plunged into debt since Red Bull Arena was erected.
Still, MLS is eager to bring another team into the area – and are pushing for completion while staunch supporter Mayor Bloomberg is in office.
“There are 13 million people in the metropolitan area,” said Courtemanche, whose league currently boasts 19 franchises in the United States and Canada. “The research that’s been conducted indicates that clearly is an opportunity for two professional soccer teams in this area.”
MLS officials also say they will replace the existing soccer fields in the area with upgraded fields surrounding the stadium. They’d be available for recreational use.
“MLS is ready to run youth leagues, child obesity programs, so they’re really engaging the local community,” Friedman said. “With this and Citi Field and the U.S. Open Tennis Center, we really feel like we developed a destination area, like a sports Mecca.”
The main hurdle to the project, Mayor Bloomberg said on Monday, is replacing the roughly nine acres of parkland the city would give up for the project. One proposal discussed by state and city officials would call for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to turn over an equivalent amount of land that would be converted to parks.
Friedman outlined two specific proposals — one that would transform the area of the abandoned Flushing airport, and another transformation closer to Forest Hills near the abandoned Long Island Railroad lines.
“We’ve got to find land in roughly the same area,” Bloomberg said. “There is land on an MTA site, which everybody said, ‘Let’s get that.’ I have not talked to (MTA chairman) Joe Lhota, and I don’t know how practical it is, and how much Joe needs that land for other things. Before we go spending or taking away Joe Lhota’s land, maybe we should ask him.”
State Sen. Jose Peralta said he is enthusiastic about the proposal, but the Democrat from East Elmhurst doesn’t want his constituents to lose green space, either.
“We want to avoid a situation where city parkland is replaced with a parcel in Duchess County,” Peralta said. “That’s the key to getting this thing ironed out.”
The Bloomberg administration also wants to make sure the soccer league has adequate financing for the privately funded project, a City Hall source told the Daily News.
Parking might also be an issue. Supporters of the facility say soccer fans could park at Citi Field and lots used for the US Open; MLS has discussed a scenario in which it won’t host games conflicting with either Mets games or the US Open, alleviating the parking strain.
But Citi Field is a hike from the proposed side, and the proponents will have to work out plans for disabled fans. They may also face opposition from businesses and residents who fear soccer fans will take away parking spots.
The stadium might also compete with Citi Field for concerts and other non-baseball events. The Mets’ owners were once in discussions with MLS about purchasing the expansion team, but have taken their name out of the hat.
Before targeting Flushing, MLS investigated 20 sites spanning al five boroughs – including Randall’s Island, Willets Point and Pier 40.
MLS will select an ownership group that will take over financing the stadium and management of the franchise once a location is selected, Courtemanche said. The new owners will have to pony up for hefty expansion fee. The last team to join the league, the Montreal Impact, paid $40 million, and the fee is expected to increase dramatically for a New York City franchise.
Despite the substantial monetary commitment, Courtemanche said it’s just a matter of picking one of the multiple ownership groups that have stepped forward, not finding one.
The Saudi consortium Sela Sport owns the rights to the Cosmos name and is planning to field a team in the second-tier North American Soccer League next year. The Cosmos have committed to multiple years with NASL, but ownership remains in talks with MLS about a future partnership.
“Clearly, we’ve had discussions with the Cosmos,” Courtemanche said.
The Cosmos have maintained they have the means to fund a New York franchise in MLS.