Louisville City FC is considering building its planned stadium in New Albany, Ind., with government officials there actively courting club leaders for the $20 million to $30 million project.
Chairman John Neace said that the club had narrowed the potential locations for a stadium to two — down from four — and though he wouldn’t talk specifics, IL has learned that New Albany is in the running, at least as a fallback option.
“We desperately need a stadium, or quite honestly, the team will probably have to go elsewhere,” Neace told IL in an interview in the club’s downtown offices.
Without revenue from sponsorships and concessions, the club is unlikely to be able to sustain itself and to keep growing, he said.
New Albany officials said they would welcome the investment of a new stadium and would consider some public support to lure the venue to Indiana.
New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan told IL that city leaders had held “preliminary discussions” with Neace and proposed a couple of sites.
Gahan and New Albany City Council President Patrick McLaughlin said that the soccer stadium could address the city’s need for a large venue, which city leaders have identified as a catalyst for growth.
New Albany is seeing a lot of public and private sector investments, Gahan said. Floyd County voters in November approved $87 million in construction renovations that will include the rebuilding of two elementary schools. A $16 million, high-end housing development, with nearly 200 apartments downtown is expected to welcome its first tenants any day. And a new hotel is planned for State Street.
The city is improving roads and minimizing traffic by eliminating one-way streets, and entrepreneurs have added lots of retail and dining options, including breweries, a winery and a new steakhouse, said Gahan, who became mayor five years ago after serving eight years on the council.
“I think New Albany has some momentum,” Gahan said. “I think we have the right atmosphere that would lend itself to developing a great soccer audience.”
A sports venue also could foster additional growth, with hotels, bars and restaurants, and would benefit people across the whole county, he said.
“A soccer stadium would be very exciting,” the mayor said.
McLaughlin, the city council president, said he understands soccer’s growing audience and its potential as an economic driver. McLaughlin said he played the sport growing up, as did his sons.
The president of a local LouCity FC fan club said he viewed the possibility of a stadium across the river with mixed emotions.
“I would prefer downtown Louisville, but I also understand the reality of the finances. I would rather have a club in New Albany than no club at all,” said Ken Luther, president of The Coopers.
However, Luther said that over the long haul, building the stadium in New Albany would be “shortsighted” and would hurt growth and attendance.
“Playing in New Albany would likely deter casual fans and limit attendance, especially with bridge tolls, lack of public transportation, etc.,” he said via email.
Neace said that a stadium in New Albany would be only a short drive away and would not deter fans, especially in the right venue. With growth in Louisville, Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany, the entire metro area is going to look a lot different three to five years from now, he said.
Financing the stadium remains a major challenge. While generally supportive of the club, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has said that “a significant portion” of the stadium funding would have to come from the private sector.
And if the club builds its stadium in Indiana, Louisville Metro Government will not participate, said Jeff Mosley, deputy chief of Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development arm.
The club played its first two seasons at Slugger Field, home of the Louisville Bats, to great athletic success, twice reaching the Eastern Conference Final, losing last year in a penalty shootout to eventual United Soccer League champion New York Red Bulls II. LouCity’s fan support ranked third out of 29 teams in the third-division USL.
However, the club lost $1 million last year, and Neace said that while finances are improving and the loss will be smaller this year, the club may continue to incur losses unless it builds a soccer-specific stadium.
Neace pegged the cost of the venue between $20 million and $30 million.
A stadium would increase the club’s revenue stream because of naming rights, other advertising and concession sales, luxury seating and revenue generated by hosting other events, such as concerts, Neace said.
The importance of a soccer-specific stadium also is increasing because the USL has said that it wants every team to play in its own 10,000-seat stadium, he said.
Slugger Field eventually will not suffice for a USL club, Neace said, because the pitch is too small and uneven, in that it contains a mix of artificial and natural surfaces.
“You need to play soccer in a soccer stadium,” he said.
And if LouCity wants to play in the first division Major League Soccer — an eventual goal the owners have identified — it needs a 20,000-seat stadium.
It makes no sense to build a smaller stadium first only to build a bigger one later, Neace said, so the local owners want to build a 10,000-seat stadium that eventually could be expanded to 20,000 seats.
“The owners do understand that and are committed to getting there,” he said.
Neace in September succeeded Wayne Estopinal, a local architect and driving force behind the club who had gotten Neace involved in LouCity FC. The appointment of Neace, a local venture capitalist, reflected a sense of urgency in the club’s pursuit of a stadium.
Neace said that LouCity FC is working with two companies that are preparing renderings and financing options for a stadium in two Louisville-area locations, which he declined to identify. A $75,000 Louisville Metro-financed study had identified four possible sites that the city kept secret to prevent land speculation.
Neace said that he expects the stadium and the club’s planned soccer academy to be built in two locations, because of space constraints. That means, for example, the academy could be in downtown Louisville, with a stadium in New Albany, or vice versa. Or either venue could be at the east or west ends of Louisville.
Neace said that the club owners, of which there are about 30 (though Estopinal is no longer among them), would have to raise millions of dollars to get the project started, with a bond to be paid back with revenue generated by the venue.
The chairman acknowledged that it’s unlikely the club will be able to persuade any municipality to commit tens of millions of dollars “for a playground for millionaires,” but he said a public-private partnership makes a lot of sense because the venue could bring lots of people downtown and even attract talent from other areas.
That would address one of the area’s big economic development challenges: Some employers have said that even with wages that are twice the federal minimum wage they’re struggling to attract good employees.
To lure the stadium, a municipality could, for example, create a tax increment financing district, which would direct property taxes collected from growth in the district — hotel, restaurants, bars — to be used to help pay off the stadium bond. But that approach, too, bears some financial risks, as Louisville Metro government’s experience with the Yum! Center has shown.
Neace said he approached the club’s other owners recently and shared with them LouCity FC’s financial situation, how much they need to raise to continue to operate the club and how much they would need on top of that for the stadium.
He said he asked them whether they were in or out.
“Most of the people are still in,” he said.
Neace, whose venture capital firm is based in New Albany, said that he got involved with the club initially for family and financial reasons and still believes that LouCity FC will be a good investment eventually.
Neace has followed soccer for years because his two adult sons played through high school. He traveled with them to Brazil in 2014 to watch some World Cup matches.
He initially viewed his involvement with LouCity FC as a continuation of the family’s love for soccer, giving him and his sons more opportunities to spend time together. But the businessman in him also sees the soccer club as a financial opportunity.
“I really think that over time … it will be a very good investment for my children,” he said.
Neace said the owners know what they need, and he has a “pretty good degree of confidence” that a local soccer stadium can be built.
Both New Albany officials told IL that while the club has not asked them for specific means to support for the stadium, the city has economic development tools, such as TIFs, to be able to make a good case for hosting the stadium construction.
Neace said that within the next 45 to 60 days, the club will get the renderings and details on stadium costs and financing options, at which point he will seek feedback from fans and owners. He said he hopes to announce the project before the end of the first quarter and begin demolition in the second quarter. If all goes as planned, the club could begin hosting games at its new home in summer or fall of 2019.
Whatever happens with the stadium, the club will make at least one move next year: The lease on its offices, 127 6th Street, is running out in October. The building is owned by Estopinal and previously served as the headquarters of his architectural firm, TEG Architects, which is now based in Jeffersonville.
Neace said the club is looking for a new office location and plans to keep its offices in downtown Louisville.
Clarification: One sentence in this post was changed to eliminate potential confusion about whether the city of New Albany is one of the two finalists the club is considering for a stadium.