The Odessa City Council will decide Tuesday on whether to allow local sports associations to remove structures and other improvements from the UTPB athletic complex, a move University of Texas System lawyers say is not allowed under a lease agreement that expires soon between the university and the City.

Despite efforts by University of Texas Permian Basin to keep an agreement with the City of Odessa to provide sports fields to leagues and associations on campus, the City has rejected UTPB’s proposal.

City officials are mostly mum on the issue of not renewing the lease and whether they will gut the sprawling athletic complex when the lease expires on Aug. 31. Councilman Mark Matta did say he thought the City could reach an agreement on the equipment and other improvements.

UTPB President Sandra Woodley wants the site to remain intact, saying that a number of sports organizations have already expressed interest in the fields now that the City lease is expiring.

That’s important, as during the last 25 years basically only a handful of local groups have been allowed to use the fields. The fields, UTPB officials say, should be open to anyone at any time who wants to use them.

Odessa Girls Softball Association tee-ball players get ready to start batting practice Monday, March 29, 2021, at UTPB Park. (Eli Hartman|Odessa American)

But that’s not what has been the norm, because the City of Odessa entered into user agreements with several local organizations, including youth and adult softball, and youth soccer associations. And as the associations have become more involved with the operation of the fields, access to the public appears to have become more limited. The softball fields at the complex are locked and there is even a sign there warning “Fields are for OGSA use only.”

The current lease agreement with the City does not allow subleasing the fields without prior approval from UTPB. The City, however, through the years entered into “user agreements” with some of the local sports organizations for use of the fields.

Woodley said the issue with the current arrangement is that those associations didn’t want others to use the fields and, more concerning, some of those associations in turn sub-leased the space to other groups and charged them for it and “pocketed the money.”

Tatum Hubbard, UTPB chief of staff and executive director of communications and marketing, said that sub-leasing for profit is “the definition of a commercial enterprise.”

That’s also important as the current lease called for a $1 per-year rental fee to be paid to UTPB, plus 10 percent of the gross proceeds from all commercial activities (excluding food and beverage sales) conducted on the leased premises by its agents, contracts and subleases, the agreement states.

“It’s hard to make the case it’s not a commercial enterprise with tens of thousands of dollars in the bank for some of these groups who have subleased our property and made a profit off the university and that is not permitted,” Woodley said.

Odessa City Councilman Steve Thompson on Friday indicated that part of what broke down negotiations was the City allowing members of the associations to do the negotiations with UTPB. “I want people to know this is what happened,” he said. “The associations asked council to step aside and let them negotiate and then come back to us…we were willing to do whatever was needed to be done to stay there and they couldn’t reach an agreement.”

Thompson said he didn’t blame UTPB for wanting a percentage but that the associations were absolutely against that.

Woodley said the City was asked to provide five years’ worth of financial information to document field operations but could not. She said there were a few years but not a full five years’ worth of records. Under the current lease, quarterly statements were supposed to be provided to UTPB but were not.

On the topic of removing the equipment and other improvements at the complex, Thompson said that City Attorney Natasha Brooks and Parks & Recreation Director Steve Patton had “been meeting all morning.”

“If it is our equipment I would say let’s leave it there so the community can still use it and benefit from it,” he said. “But if most of it belongs to the associations and we installed it we have to remove it.”

Thompson said the associations went into negotiations “against everything in the first place.”

Josiah Campos, 14, left, helps his father and coach Juan Campos set up a pitchers screen before the start of their practice Wednesday evening at the UTPB Sports Fields. Campos remarked that his team rents the fields from the Odessa Softball association 2-3 times a week and he wouldn’t know where else to go if the fields were no longer available to use. The Odessa Softball Association recently held a demonstration on Tuesday calling for UTPB to renew their contract with the City of Odessa without change. (Eli Hartman|Odessa American)

He said Tom Martinez, president of the Odessa Soccer Association board of directors, was the one who told UTPB that his soccer association didn’t need them and they could find another place to practice and play games. “They knew full well that they were not going to be able to use those facilities if we were not going to be able to work out an agreement …now they are trying to throw the city under the bus,” Thompson said.

Martinez spoke at a community rally at UTPB Park fields Tuesday and continued to say that “everyone uses the facility at no cost.”

“We didn’t pay a dime; we haven’t paid a dime,” he said at that time. “There was a $25 fee that was paid from the city to the university in the original lease agreement — $1 per year — and then, of course, the City of Odessa agreed to maintain the facility and that’s why it looks the way it does for that lease agreement.

“In the agreement, it does note a 10 percent fee, but that was for commercial entities. We were advised by the City that it does not include 501c3 nonprofits and that would be all the organizations for youth sports.

“If you are out there doing something to make a buck, then that would apply, but not for the 501c3s,” he said.

However, he did not address if the association had made money off of subleases or other agreements with other sports organizations.

During that same Tuesday rally, a lot of information was tossed around from speakers and those in the crowd. One item that has come up repeatedly is the assertion by some affiliated with the groups that UTPB really just wants to run the associations off and build a football stadium.

Hubbard said nothing could be further from the truth. “That’s not even on our radar,” she said. “There are no plans for a football stadium, and if we did build one we don’t know where it would go.”

She said talks about a basketball arena are more likely, but that it would likely be located on the opposite side of the campus.

The annual cost of maintaining the fields is between $500,000 and $600,000. Although the lease is coming to an end, Woodley said the university plans to continue giving access for local sports associations and others, as well as using the complex for sports tourism.

The going rate to rent a field is between $50 and $60 an hour, Woodley said.

“But there may be a daily rate for extended use,” she added. “We’re working to try to get the best rate possible. The rates will depend on our success at being able to pull in private dollars to make up for the city’s investment that we lost on the fields, but we think it will still be affordable.”

The proposed UTPB plan for a new lease agreement was designed to obtain University of Texas System approval and meet all its policy and legal requirements.

The plan proposed by UTPB would include:

  • The City of Odessa’s investment to maintain the fields (part of the current contract).
  • Fees from local associations to use the fields that would be minimized through City support.
  • Financial support from outside tournaments.

As part of the proposal, UTPB would also centrally manage the finances, operations and scheduling of the fields.

Juan Campos, left, is assisted by his son Josiah Campos, 14, as they set up before the start of their practice Wednesday evening at the UTPB Sports Fields. Campos, a coach for his son’s baseball team, remarked that his team rents the fields from the Odessa Softball association 2-3 times a week and he wouldn’t know where else to go if the fields were no longer available to use. The Odessa Softball Association recently held a demonstration on Tuesday calling for UTPB to renew their contract with the City of Odessa without change. (Eli Hartman|Odessa American)

How did we get here?

The current agreement with the city expires Aug. 31, and there remains the chance that the City will dismantle much of the athletic complex and take it elsewhere.

Whether that will be a new city recreation complex that would be funded by a bond issue (tax dollars) or some existing fields throughout town — such as those at Sherwood Park — isn’t clear, and city officials have mostly remained silent on this point. City Manager Michael Marrero cancelled a scheduled interview to discuss the situation and issued a news release detailing that the City decided not to renew the lease.

That release came after Mayor Javier Joven told a crowd assembled at the Tuesday associations rally: “The City of Odessa did not, in any form or fashion, cancel this contract. We do not own the property. It is university land and they did send a letter and it is public. The university sent word to the City of Odessa cancelling the 25-year contract.”

Joven also announced during the rally that he plans to push for a bond issue to fund a new City sports complex.

He did not address why the City would walk away from 25 years of improvements at the UTPB fields and start all over on a new “recreation” facility.

Marrero did not address what prevented even a one-year extension from being reached.

The proposed agreement offered by UTPB would have given the university oversight of youth and adult sports leagues that use campus facilities, and a percentage of concession and tournament revenues.

Achieving this plan would have required the university to centrally manage the finances, operations and scheduling of the fields.

“While this plan did not receive your support, please know that we deeply value UTPB’s partnership with the City,” Woodley stated, in a formal letter addressed to the City on May 24th. “Our desire to host the community on campus is sincere. We look forward to exploring additional opportunities to partner in the future for the betterment of our community, including alternatives to the proposal we submitted.”

Marrero, who at one point was leading negotiations for the City, confirmed Tuesday that UTPB and the City could not reach an agreement.

Marrero indicated that the separation was mutual. He said the City is actively working with the different youth sports groups to relocate to new playing sites.

When he made those remarks Tuesday, Marrero said the City had no plans to remove any equipment from UTPB facilities or the Jurassic Splash Park also at the site. Equipment such as batting cages were purchased and installed by various sports groups, city officials have said.

Woodley said UTPB wants to make sure they continue to have sports activities on their fields and plan to start offering the complex for such purposes in the fall.

“We expect to continue to provide that opportunity for the City,” Woodley said in a news conference Tuesday. “We’ve notified all of the existing associations and new ones that they can play on our fields, so we’re going have those fields up and running in the fall.”

Ariana Castillo, 10, left, practices her softball pitch with her father Robert as they wait for the start of softball practice Wednesday evening outside of the UTPB Sports Fields. (Eli Hartman|Odessa American)

Joven said now things are at an impasse. He said the City was asked to put in a bid to maintain the facilities.

“We have to solve this issue going forward, whether it’s going to be here, in this property, or in the future of a regional park or smaller parks,” he said.

He said he was going to organize a committee to start addressing a regional park, roads and infrastructure in a bond issue.

The city has tax revenue to pay for parks and recreation and that’s the source of funding they use to provide that service on UTPB’s land, Woodley said.

“We don’t have that source of funds, and of course, we can’t use tuition and fees and state appropriations,” she explained. “We have an education mission. We can’t use our university budget to provide sports on the fields, so we’ll be looking to raise private philanthropy.

“We’ve got some really generous donors in our community who want to keep the sports going on our fields and in order to minimize the days that we’ll have to charge for the sports on our fields. We think it’s going to be fabulous. We’re really excited to host, starting on Sept. 1. We expect the fields to be very busy.”

The difference between the current and upcoming arrangement is that UTPB will have to find a way to fund the fields. They also will be managing the operations.

The City delegated the management of the fields to independent associations and UTPB had no role in managing the fields.

The city paid out of their parks and recreation budget for the maintenance of the fields, including cutting the grass, providing electricity and irrigation.

“The associations charged fees and they didn’t pay any additional fees on top of that back to the city or to the university, so they were able to keep all of that revenue and manage the operations of their teams. So it was basically delegated from the city,” Woodley said. “The actual maintenance of the fields, the city paid for out of the parks and recreation budget. That’s the amount of money that will no longer be available from the parks budget for a city park on our campus.”

In April, UTPB officials met with City Council and administrators to discuss the possibility of reaching a new agreement. The goal at that time was to negotiate a one-year contract extension to give the City and university time to hash out a longer-term contract.

During the meeting, Woodley informed city officials and representatives from the different sports groups that if an agreement couldn’t be reached, then youth and adult sports teams would no longer be able to use the campus’s field facilities under the current arrangement.

She noted that the university is prohibited from giving away its land for free.

“We have a legal obligation to the state and to the UT System to charge the fair market value for land,” she said Tuesday. “We’re not allowed to give it away for free. So the 25-year lease that we have with the City provided a situation where the City put in millions of dollars to be able to have the infrastructure for the fields and then they pay this annual fee for the upkeep. The contract did require that the associations pay 10 percent of their revenue to the university, but that did not happen.”

Asked why this happened, Woodley said she didn’t know but “we’re not really focused on the past …”

“Our focus is on the future,” she said. “We want to make sure, No. 1, that we’re in compliance with all regulations and laws of the state, so we have to make sure that we bring whatever we do into compliance. … We think there’s a way for us to afford to do that without tapping into our university student funds, again, with private philanthropy and also really minimum fees for the organizations to pay in order to play on most fields.”

“We think it can be a workable solution even without the City, although we’re disappointed that they’re not involved in it. We work with the City on so many other projects. We have great respect for the City and for their decision not to provide the financial support, and we’re going to find a way to be successful about it.”

Woodley said there is a chance that another agreement could be reached in the future similar to the one that was already in place.

“We let the city know when they rejected our plan that we’re open to conversations in the future,” she said. “We think it’s a great partnership. Our primary mission is not to provide a sports park, but we care about it because the community cares about it. And so, if there’s a possibility in the future for the City and the university to come back to the table and find a viable solution to make it even more affordable for more people to play on that property, we are certainly open to let them know that, and so the conversation certainly can continue.”

Woodley said UTPB has repeatedly reached out to the associations to make sure they are aware there is an opportunity to continue using the fields.

“They have told us through communications. . . they do not want to play on the fields. And so, again, we respect their decision not to play on the fields, and I think they’re looking for other locations,” she said. “But the door’s always open to them as well. If they want to play on the fields, then we will welcome them back on to the fields and any other organization who heretofore has been prevented from playing on those fields.”

Woodley said she believes the fields aren’t used enough.

“We want to make sure that we optimize the assets of the community,” she said. “The existing associations have had repeated communication from Todd (Dooley), our athletic director, and us as well. They’re welcome on the fields. We’ve told them that, and so far, they rejected the offer.”