AUSTIN, Texas -- The Austin Swing struck out before the first batter ever made it to the plate. In a vote that surprised even the opponents of Austin's minor league baseball venture, citizens last week overwhelmingly rejected a plan to build a new ball park on the Colorado River. That left Austin, which had 465,622 residents in the 1990 census, as the largest city in the nation without a professional sports team. The project failed despite the support of Mayor Bruce Todd and all but one city council member, the local media and a $300,000 publicity campaign that featured pitches by local celebrities. The voters said no -- by a margin of 63 to 37 percent -- to a $10 million, tax-supported bond package that would have paid for about half the cost of a new stadium for the Phoenix Firebirds. The Triple-A team had planned to begin playing as the Austin Swing in 1997. Both sides agree that the project failed because of voter concern about new taxes and a mistrust of the city council, which initially tried to finalize the deal with the Arizona team without a public vote. 'It was definitely about taxes,' said David Weeks, a campaign consultant who worked on behalf of the project. 'Austin voters sent the city council a signal. 'We're tired of having our property taxes raised. We want baseball, but we don't want it financed by the city.'' Weeks said the new stadium would have cost the average homeowner less than $4.50 a year in additional taxes, less than the cost of a pizza or a movie.
But even that small amount, he conceded, was apparently too much for citizens coping with recent increases in city, county and public transportation taxes. 'It was like the straw that broke the camel's back,' Weeks said. 'In a political race, it's like having your candidate in bed with somebody.' Opponents of the bond package organized a group called Priorities First, which stressed the tax increase issue and claimed the city council tried to shut the public out of the negotiation process and failed to negotiate a good deal. 'The process that brought it to the public's attention was the fatal blow,' said Priorities First spokesman Jack Haden. 'As far as I was concerned it was dead when it hit the table. The public was never invited to the partnership meetings. It just didn't seem like it was an up and up deal to a lot of people.' Brigid Shea, the only city council member who opposed the project, said the vote was not a rejection of baseball but a rejection of public funding of sports franchises. She said the public believes they have 'gotten greedy' and are trying 'extortion tactics to get money out of the public.' 'It was a greedy proposal in the first place,' she said. 'I told them (other council members) that we would have to put together a compelling financing package for the stadium because voters are not going to pay for just anything that comes down the line.' Under the financing package, the city was to give the franchise the land for the stadium and a road and fund other infrastructures such as utilities. It also called for a $1 million capital improvement fund that would have been paid by excess money from seat option sales. Shea said projections for seat sales were overly optimistic and the city would probably have been left holding the bag. She also said 'generous assumptions' were made of how much revenue would be earned by concessions to help fund stadium upkeep over the years. 'If anybody believes the city wouldn't have to pay for upkeep, they would believe a child when they say they would keep a new puppy,' she said. Council member Ronney Reynolds, an ardent supporter of the project, said the vote came down to fears of a tax increase and increasing the city's debt. 'It wasn't Priorities First. It was 'me first,'' he said. Voters asked, 'do I want to pay a tax for a benefit that I am not going to use?' I think the voters were saying no to baseball. Look at the demographics of the people who voted, such as retirees. They just didn't see driving to southeast Austin to see a minor league baseball game.' Reynolds said he respects voters' wishes, but he believes Austin was the big loser in the election. 'It was another venue for the people of Austin, inexpensive family entertainment,' he said. 'I think that's where we missed out.' Supporters of the project say the vote all but dooms the prospect of getting a professional sports team in the Austin area, but there are some who have other plans. Priorities First received some of its funding from a group of developers who openly admitted they wanted the stadium project to fail. They want to build a new stadium on land they own north of Austin in Williamson County and bring in a Double-A minor league team. But that stadium will need public financing as well, and Weeks said those developers will face the same problems that the Firebirds faced in Austin -- voters tired of property tax increases. 'I don't think they'll support it any more than this one,' he said. 'I think Williamson County taxpayers feel the same way as Austin voters. They're going to have a real hard time with that election. They're going to have a hard time getting a franchise.' Phonenix Firebirds owner Martin Stone checked out of an Austin hotel the morning after the election and said he will seek to move his team elsewhere, perhaps Sacramento, Fresno or Portland. He was philosophical about the vote, telling the Austin American- Statesman: 'I think we got caught up in the general upheaval against the council and taxes. I would have loved being here. Oh well, that's the way it goes sometimes.'