SANTA CLARA -- The San Francisco 49ers, who had been riding a wave of local support toward their new stadium opening, are now having to deal with criticism from a group that backed the team's move.
At a heated Tuesday night meeting in Santa Clara City Hall, an overflow group of parents and teens urged the 49ers to keep a years-old commitment to fund youth soccer fields as part of the Levi's Stadium project, set to open this summer. The City Council then voted to begin paying for the fields with $2 million in public money but called on the 49ers to help them financially.
"They should do the right thing and pay the city back for the money we're going to spend to build these fields, because that's the right thing to do," said Councilwoman Lisa Gillmor, a stadium cheerleader who is now upset the 49ers broke its "promise" over the soccer fields funding. "The soccer community is now left in a lurch. We have an issue and we have a problem now."
Still, Councilwoman Patricia Mahan supported the team, saying the 49ers did try to get replacement fields but a complicated deal involving school officials fell apart. She noted the 49ers never promised replacement fields "for nothing -- they were getting something in exchange," but ended up not getting parking spots at the soccer park the team had wanted as part of the deal.
The controversy stems from last week's revelation that the 49ers had abandoned plans to fund Santa Clara youth soccer fields despite a January 2012 letter from owner Jed York saying the team would pay for them. The fields are needed because the city's renowned Youth Soccer Park next to the stadium will be extremely difficult to use during 49ers games and other major events.
At Tuesday's meeting, a few 49ers executives calmly sat in the front row and ensured residents that the Youth Soccer Park would be available during game days as long as they could deal with the extremely congested local roads. But they did not address the funding issue that had riled up residents.
On Wednesday, the 49ers declined to comment. Earlier in the week, 49ers Vice President Larry MacNeil told Bay City News that the talks to secure new fields at local schools fell apart after the Santa Clara Unified School District and the team began fighting over $30 million in redevelopment funds that had been earmarked for the stadium in mid-2012.
He said the team should have informed the soccer leagues sooner.
Since a clear majority of Santa Clara voters in 2010 approved using public funds to help build the stadium, which opens in August, community support had only seemed to grow as advanced revenues from the stadium soared past $1 billion.
But the soccer issue appeared to strike the wrong chord with at least some residents. Among those who criticized the 49ers Tuesday were former Councilman Kevin Moore, who last decade initiated the city's effort to lure the 49ers and remains a huge stadium supporter, and Christine Koltermann, the school board president who is a stadium opponent.
"The Niners have a moral and ethical obligation to the children of the community," said Roseann LaCoursiere, president of the city's Police Activities League, which has about 800 children in its soccer program.
With more than 100 people packed into the council chamber and the hallways outside, the loudest cheer erupted when Youth Soccer League President Matt Heintz called out York to "stand up like a man and do what is right." Mayor Jamie Matthews banged his gavel and took the unusual step of calling on residents not to "cross the line" -- and called Heintz's comments "inappropriate."
Although the council voted unanimously to use $2 million in city land sale funds to study and design new soccer fields, city officials cautioned that it could take a year and a half and several million dollars more to actually build the fields.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.