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Pie in the sky

NASCAR. Major League Baseball. The NFL. Shops and movie theaters and bars and restaurants and condos and hotels. It’s a mind-boggling project that developer Holly Hills has presented, and I’m not sure I believe it.

Holly Hills plans to build a sports and entertainment mecca near the SBC Center on the East Side. If Holly Hills follows through on its vision — construction could begin as early as 2007 — it would be good news for a long-neglected and oft-maligned area that needs development. If Holly Hills bails or fails to make good on its snazzy proposal, it would further deflate a part of the city that can’t get enough traction to move forward.

So while some City officials (Mayor Phil Hardberger and County Judge Nelson Wolff didn’t attend the press conference; should we take their absences as a sign of skepticism?) are dreaming of NASCAR lollipops in their heads, a few cautionary words:

Prohibit local tax abatements. While Holly Hills’ investment is hefty — estimated in the billions — it also stands to earn enormous profits. If the developer qualifies for federal empowerment zone funds, it should receive them, but the local tax incentives should be off-limits. Holly Hills CEO Joe Heitzler was quoted in the Express-News as saying, “We are looking for whatever support it takes,” but that shouldn’t include eroding the local tax base.

OK, what’s the hitch? Venture capitalists are reportedly covering up to 80 percent of the costs. Notice the words “up to.” Who will be on the hook for paying the rest?

The project’s magnitude hinges on population growth. While San Antonio’s population is projected to increase, the more important question is, are there enough locals who can afford a NASCAR ticket ($130 for a grandstand seat) while supporting the Spurs or a football team, or a baseball team? While tourists would likely attend a racing event, San Antonians would be primarily responsible for filling stadiums and arenas for their local sports franchises.

What kind of jobs would the development generate? Hotel maids, fast-food counter workers, and ticket vendors don’t earn high wages, or even living wages. What spin-off businesses, those that pay real salaries, would follow from the development?

Ensure long-time East Side residents will benefit. Minority-owned, East Side businesses should receive special consideration on contract bids. Why not open a Mr. and Mrs. G’s near the football stadium?

Fix the streets. When the SBC Center was built, a portion of Houston Street nearest the Spurs’ arena was resurfaced, but drive farther to the east or west and you will find the same potholed, ragged thoroughfares.

Make sure the community, particularly the East Side, has input into the plan. Although there are reportedly no plans to demolish homes to accommodate the development, NASCAR is noisy. Will residents who live within earshot still enjoy their neighborhood? Will their health be affected by pollution from the track? Will their homes have to be bought out?

Integrate mass transit into the plan. Ozone-alert days are part of San Antonio living. While the development would be accessible from the interstate, the city doesn’t need more pollution, congestion, and asphalt parking lots to accommodate our vehicle addiction.

What if the development doesn’t pan out? Is there a guarantee that Holly Hills won’t leave a half-finished skeleton of a stadium? If they build it and people don’t come, what is the fate of the land? The most tragic outcome would be that the development is built and fails. What could be more depressing than 1,000 blighted acres with buildings in various states of construction?

Holly Hills’ development sounds enticing. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

By Lisa Sorg

Michael Cary is on vacation. His column will resume next week.

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