Cover Stories

Shirts vs Skates

How Santa Fe leaders’ lack of transparency led to an avoidable, public dust-up between ice sports and soccer

In retrospect, the drama started with a news release that should have stayed in someone’s Google drive.

Instead, officials in December posted an announcement on the City of Santa Fe’s website—also sent to reporters’ inboxes—declaring the Southside’s Genoveva Chavez Community Center as the new home of a yet-to-be-named, or formed, Major Arena Soccer League 2 team for six games a year. It was definitely news to those who spend hours at the community center’s skating rink perfecting their spins and slap shots that they would have to share the ice.

Granted, in 2020, the city publicly revealed the rink had been in the red for some time and that turning it into a multipurpose space was a possibility. Tammy Berendzen, president of the Santa Fe Skating Club, tells SFR the December announcement brought her back to that time when the city was floating the idea of permanently scrapping the ice altogether.

“It just sparked all of the same feelings that we had in the spring and summer of 2020,” she says. “Whatever tentative agreement or whatever the city thinks they want to do has really been done behind closed doors.”

Within weeks of the soccer announcement, which led to a few news stories, the skating community descended in droves on City Council chambers and pleaded with the governing body not to cut into their rink time. During the same council meeting on Feb. 8, the soccer team’s owner asked the ice folks to take a breath and consider the community-building opportunities he says a professional sports team would create.

The tension remains, and the soccer team’s future in Santa Fe is now in limbo. A series of interviews and a close review of city records by SFR reveals Mayor Alan Webber and key city staff had been meeting behind closed doors with backers for more than half a year to hammer out the details, then publicly backtracked. The city has released specifics in dribs and drabs about its plan to host ice sports and a professional indoor soccer team in the same space. That opacity pitted fans of one sport against participants in others.

The city’s role—and its missteps—came into sharper focus last week, when City Manager John Blair issued a memo in which he tried to set the record straight. The Feb. 28 document raised as many questions as it answered, with Blair implying the soccer team’s owner had gone rogue and was no longer cooperating with Santa Fe officials.

Owner David Fresquez disputes most of the city’s story and says his idea to create the team and use the Chavez Center had immediate and enthusiastic support from Webber as far back as last summer. For his part, Webber tells SFR he could have handled the situation differently and takes responsibility for the mess that exists now.

Also unclear is how much money the soccer team would cost, whether the city would foot some of the bill and how Fresquez’s proposed six-game schedule would bring revenue to the Chavez Center—and even whether profits would be required to send the deal forward.

But Blair’s memo and SFR’s reporting leave one fact beyond dispute: It will now take some serious doing to bring arena soccer to Santa Fe, including a detente of sorts among Fresquez, who remains hopeful; city officials, some of whom are still in the dark; and ice sports enthusiasts who have been frosty on the notion of sharing the rink since they learned about it.

Berendzen traces her love for skating back to when she caught a glimpse of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. She was 16 at the time. Now, her 15-year-old daughter, who has been on the ice since before she could lace up her own skates, is a coach with the skating club’s Learn to Skate program. Berendzen has headed up the club for about 10 years and says she tried to explain to Webber how integral skating is to her family and many others in Santa Fe. The mayor, she contends, seemed intent on bringing arena soccer to town.

“I think we did a good job of educating them in what our needs are, and what our concerns were,” she says. “But at the end of the meeting, the mayor’s response was still, ‘I really want to see soccer in Santa Fe, and I want you all to help me make that happen.’”

Webber says his message to Berendzen and others during that meeting may have been misconstrued. He tells SFR he was trying to share his vision of expanding activities in Santa Fe.

“What I was saying was, ‘We don’t have to see this as a them versus us situation,’” Webber says. “It can be an opportunity where everybody benefits, including the ice community, and we get more recreation for everyone. And they could be a partner in making more positive things happen for the community.”

Webber also readily admits the city jumped the gun in announcing the soccer team.

“I think we got ahead of ourselves with the announcement,” he says. “There was never an agreement to have the team play at the ice rink. And the first press release made it sound like there was and that that was my fault. That was a mistake.”

Webber says the city has since “tried to reel it back in” by clarifying that the soccer team’s proposed move into the Chavez Center is far from final, but “that message did not get through.”

The initial announcement and subsequent news stories rankled not only Berendzen and the skating club, but also local hockey enthusiasts. Santa Fe Hockey Association President Anne Killoy tells SFR she blames the city’s December announcement for all of the heartburn.

“I think they could have avoided this whole thing if they had done their due diligence in the first place,” Killoy says. “We have no beef with Fresquez or soccer, but we feel pitted against each other, unfortunately.”

One reason the city’s attempts to walk back the original announcement may not have convinced many people: Officials had previously considered repurposing the rink.

Berendzen has, over the past couple of years, collected a stack of city documents through Inspection of Public Records Act requests and shared some of what she found with SFR, including an email exchange from 2020 that showed city officials in discussions about turning the rink into a multipurpose field. But Berendzen didn’t learn about the city’s new plan to cover the ice six times a year with artificial turf—an idea she continues to oppose—until she read news stories based on the December 2022 announcement.

What wasn’t announced publicly at the time was the extent to which the mayor and other city officials had already been meeting with Fresquez to hammer out the details. Blair tells SFR that he, Fresquez and Webber have spoken weekly about the proposed soccer team over the last three weeks.

The city manager’s memo to councilors last week not only confirms Fresquez was in the mix the whole time, but it also contradicts the initial, exclamation-point-littered announcement.

“Santa Fe loves soccer! And now we’ll have a Santa Fe team playing in the Major Arena Soccer League, representing our kids, our families, and our community! The City is delighted to provide an assist and we’re eager to see David Fresquez and the team score the first goal,” the December announcement reads, in part.

A few months and much public feuding later, Blair constructed a timeline. Among other revelations, it says the Dec. 2 news release was a mistake:

“The press release includes language that the team will play at the GCCC ice rink, which was an error because no lease agreement had been drafted or agreed to. The ice community is taken by surprise by this announcement. As a result, a meeting is scheduled with GCCC Complex Manager [Jeremy] Perea, [Recreation Division] Director [Brian] Stinett and the President of the Ice Skating Club to discuss the proposal.”

Blair’s memo indicates that Fresquez initially pitched the idea of an arena soccer team housed at the community center to city staff months ago.

“Mr. Fresquez’ soccer proposal was first brought to the attention of Community Services Director Maria Sanchez-Tucker and…[Recreation Director Brian] Stinett by Mr. Fresquez in August 2022,” Blair wrote. “Mr. Fresquez had previously approached some City Councilors, and some other City Staff in June 2022, about the soccer proposal.”

But Fresquez refutes that claim and says he first pitched the idea to an enthusiastic Webber.

“He loved the idea. He loved it,” says Fresquez, who is president of the Santa Fe Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a member of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Committee and runs his own at-home caregiving operation. “He wanted to bring it to Santa Fe.”

Webber admits he liked Fresquez’s “outline of an idea for an arena team” and saw it as a way to appease the constituents who ask for more things to do in the city.

“My reaction was that it would be great if there were a way to have that be a springboard so that all parts of the community could get a benefit from his willingness to be a soccer entrepreneur,” Webber says.

But the city can’t afford staff to accommodate both a soccer team and enough ice time, at least in the short term, Webber says, though he hopes there’s still a creative way to launch the team.

“Would it be fun to have more ice time and more indoor soccer for our kids? Yes,” he says. “How do we grow that? And can we do it at the speed at which David needs to have his team play in this next winter season? If the answer to that is no, how will he pivot? And can we introduce him to people who could help him find a different venue?”

In his memo, Blair says hosting the soccer team at the Chavez center “would require unanimous support of the Governing Body, the Community Services Department and the Recreation team, the ice community, the prospective arena soccer team, and the MASL2 league.”

But unanimous support, Blair concluded, “does not appear to exist.”

Webber walks back that sentiment and tells SFR “there’s no requirements,” for unanimous agreement, but that he wants to get a “consensus” from everyone involved and find a “win, win” scenario.

City officials want to help Fresquez’s team find a venue, Blair says, and if it’s to be the Chavez Center, soccer players and ice users must agree to share the ice.

“That’s the crux of this issue,” Blair tells SFR. “There are secondary concerns about how much this costs. But at a foundational level, it comes back to whether there are ways the various sports communities can work together.”

Fresquez never considered another venue, he says, because arena soccer rules and field-of-play parameters are similar to hockey’s. And in his view there isn’t another suitable location in Santa Fe.

“Nowhere in my proposal was there another option, just the Chavez Center,” he says.

Fresquez has proposed the city chip in $221,000 for, among other costs, the flooring and turf the team would need. Fresquez’s cost to get the team kicking would be about $331,000.

While the city would keep some of the materials needed to convert the ice rink for other purposes, it’s not clear how the city would stand to benefit financially. City officials, according to Blair’s memo, say they would charge $200 an hour in rent. Fresquez calculates that would come out to $20,000 a year, a pittance compared to the Chavez Center’s budgetary shortfall. According to the city’s fiscal year 2019 audit—completed before COVID-19 shuttered the facility for stretches of time—the center was earning nearly $2 million in annual revenue but still had about $5.1 million in operating expenses for its pool, ice rink, fitness center and other programming.

Blair says that, as of last week, he had yet to see Fresquez’s business plan, so he was unclear on how exactly the city might make more than rent off the project. In any case, the city is not looking to reduce ice time for the sake of boosting revenue at the center.

“I don’t view any of our sports facilities in Santa Fe as intended to be money makers,” he says. “I don’t know [that] anyone looks at GCCC and says, ‘If we got rid of X and added Y, we could make money.’”

During the February City Council meeting when ice skaters and hockey players turned out to advocate for their time on the ice, even without the issue being on the council’s agenda that night, it seemed like the deal was done. But without specifics coming from the mayor, who quietly listened to concerns without offering any comments or clarifications that the deal was in fact far from closed, comments became more panicked. Young children asked Webber not to take away their ice rink, and parents spoke passionately about how important it is to their families. Hockey players ranging in age also shared their concerns about losing ice time during the meeting.

Fresquez chimed in at the council meeting, too, urging collaboration between the two divided groups.

Meanwhile, city councilors have been left fielding questions about changes at the ice rink, though they’ve struggled to answer without many details of the plan.

“At the moment, there is no concrete proposal,” District 3 Councilor Jamie Cassutt, whose district includes the Chavez Center, tells SFR.

Cassutt says she believes ice sports and soccer sharing the space presents an interesting idea. She still has a lot of questions, though, such as how much it would cost the city and how much the city could gain.

Some councilors are more blunt.

“The cart was put before the horse,” District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia tells SFR, adding he never would have issued the December news release.

The city began its back-pedal as early as Jan. 19, when Blair’s timeline notes soccer backers wanted to issue another news release.

“Mr. Fresquez sent an email to Mayor Webber, City Manager Blair and Senior Advisor [Daniel] Maki with a draft press release regarding the soccer team playing at the GCCC ice rink,” Blair writes. “City Manager Blair responded to Mr. Fresquez letting him know that the City was not ready to move forward with such an announcement, and that there were a number of additional details to be worked out with multiple City departments.”

Fresquez tells SFR he didn’t issue the news release in question; the MASL2 league did.

“They said, ‘Don’t put out that press release,’” Fresquez says. “The league was already going to do their thing.”

Another wrinkle: Months before the news releases hit reporters’ desks, Webber sent the league a letter of intent.

“The City’s management is pursuing a lease with Mr. Fresquez for this purpose, as well as a strategy for obtaining the funds to invest in the infrastructure improvements that will be needed to host a MASL2 team, starting in 2023-2024 season,” reads a letter Webber wrote to the league in November.

Blair, in his memo, aruges that Webber’s letter left some wiggle room.

“It is worth noting that the letter did not specify a location for the team to play, nor did it provide a lease or budget,” Blair writes.

Fresquez doesn’t dispute that, but he says he made his intentions clear from the beginning.

“They’re trying to say, ‘Well, we didn’t say it was the Chavez Center in the letter of intent,’” Fresquez says. “But in the press release, [the city] did. And in my proposal, it had the Chavez Center written all over it, because I know that this is the only place in town to have this venue.”

Arena soccer is unique in that it’s not just soccer played inside. The game is usually played on a converted hockey rink, and the rules require players to sit in a penalty box for certain violations—just like in hockey. Another similarity: In both sports, players use the walls to direct and deflect the hockey puck or the soccer ball to gain advantages.

The closest MASL2 team to Santa Fe is the New Mexico Runners, based at the Rio Rancho Events Center, which is arranged more like a stadium and less like the Chavez Center, which has spectator seating on only one side of the rink.

Fresquez believes there’s enough interest in the capital to support his team, even with another just 50 miles down the road—and according to his version of events, so did Webber. But now Fresquez is disillusioned and confused by what he sees as a 180 from the mayor.

Berendzen is similarly disconcerted. Though the city’s public posture is now one of skepticism toward Fresquez’s proposal, she doesn’t completely buy it, even though it aligns with her wishes.

“I would like to think that this is the beginning of the city backing away from the idea, but I guess I’ve become a little too jaded in the process to actually believe that until I see it,” Berendzen says.

That might be for good reason, especially because Fresquez says he’s not done trying to make inroads with both the city and those who are clutching the rink.

“I have confidence that the city leadership and the ice community and, let’s call it, the soccer community can come to an agreement,” Fresquez says. “That’s what good healthy communities do, constant dialogue, working together and sharing.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the frequency of conversations Blair claims to have had with the mayor and David Fresquez since last summer.

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