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Columbus Leaders Offer Concrete Ideas to MLS, Contrary to Precourt's Statement

Anthony Precourt may take the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas, but the city's leaders are hoping to sway the club owner to remain.

Columbus officials on Wednesday released details of some of the efforts, ideas and initiatives that might help keep the Crew in town, perhaps contradicting owner Anthony Precourt’s claim following a meeting with MLS commissioner Don Garber that “no concrete offer or proposal was presented.”

Mayor Andrew Ginther and Columbus Partnership president and CEO Alex Fischer wrote an open letter to Precourt and Garber that read, “The city and business community are committed to keeping the team in Columbus and remain willing to engage in positive discussions.”

They added, however, that progress is unlikely as long as Precourt and his staff continue to spend time negotiating in Austin.

“None of the above is achievable if we continue to be pitted against another city. We ask you to reconsider working exclusively and collaboratively with us to advance our mutual interest,” Ginther and Fischer wrote.

Precourt announced last month that he intended to move the Crew from Ohio’s mid-size, college-football-obsessed capital to its Texas counterpart following the 2018 season unless a downtown stadium solution could be found.

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We’ve seen owners in all U.S. sports use the threat of relocation as leverage when trying to secure a new arena, but there have been signs in Columbus that Precourt already has his heart set on Texas and his mind made up. He negotiated the right to leave Ohio for Austin when he bought the Crew back in 2013 (Precourt’s offer to owners Clark and Dan Hunt and MLS was the best by far). And he was speaking with leaders from the latter for months (at least) before revealing his intentions six weeks ago. Complaints from Columbus regarding the Crew’s recent approach to fan relations, marketing and sponsor recruitment, and perhaps now the club’s disinterest in potential solutions, are additional indications that relocation is a fait accompli.

Buttressed by the vociferous #SaveTheCrew movement, Ginther and Fischer nevertheless appear to be making an effort to meet Precourt more than halfway. The letter served as a “high-level recap” of the Nov. 15 meeting in New York City and included information on some of the “specific solutions” presented.

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Among them are three publicly-owned plots of land that could serve as the site of a new stadium: the Berliner Park just south of downtown Columbus, the Dodge Recreation Center across the Scioto River and to the west of downtown, and the Ohio Expo Center—the current location of Mapfre Stadium. Ginther and Fischer wrote that the Expo Center site could be redeveloped in conjunction with the state government to include a “world-class soccer stadium” and “improved access connectors” to Ohio State.

The letter also referenced “a number of feasible privately-owned spaces downtown that could be sites for a new stadium” and the city’s willingness to “partner with private developers to turn the surrounding area into an entertainment district with restaurants, bars and attractive streetscapes.”

An offer to help facilitate additional investment in the club also was included, as well as “assistance strengthening corporate sponsorship, attendance and television ratings.”

They wrote, “All these ideas still need to be refined … [and] we stand ready to assist you in these efforts and know a long-term commitment to Columbus will produce a strong partnership with many entities.”

Following that Nov. 15 meeting, Precourt issued a statement reading, “Both PSV and the league entered the meeting with open minds, no demands and a complete willingness to listen and entertain concrete ideas or a meaningful proposal from the city’s representatives at the meeting. We were extremely disappointed that no concrete offer or proposal was presented and that the City of Columbus then told us that it would not communicate with us past today.”

Later Wednesday, Precourt acknowledged receipt of the letter and said in a statement provided to The Columbus Dispatch, "[Precourt Sports Ventures] remains open to productive dialogue should the City of Columbus choose to re-engage with PSV."

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Of course, the city has had little time to come up with ideas that might meet Precourt’s definition of “concrete” or "productive." New stadiums don’t just rise from the ground overnight. But clearly, Columbus has started to look at the specifics since Precourt’s Austin bombshell, and Ginther and Fischer apparently shared those proposals in NYC.

To be fair, Wednesday’s letter didn’t include a literal commitment for public funding toward a new stadium, nor did it indicate the terms under which Precourt might acquire, lease or build on one of the three pieces of public land. As usual, the devil may be in the details. And the city has little to no leverage thanks to the exit clause Precourt negotiated more than four years ago. But the letter does indicate, at least, the city’s willingness to engage and search for creative solutions. If that’s what Precourt wants, it’s available. The well hasn’t been entirely poisoned. But as the Crew prepared to face Toronto FC Wednesday night for a berth in next month’s MLS Cup final–which Columbus would host with a series win–it does appear Precourt already is gazing south.