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The $41.9 million Charlotte fixer-upper

It was inevitable that the Charlotte Bobcats and Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority would approach the city with a to-do list of improvements for Time Warner Cable Arena. Like stadiums, arenas need updating, and the arena’s lease gave the team and CRVA the right to request some fixes when the building reached its seventh birthday two years ago.

It was equally as inevitable that some Charlotteans would be unhappy with that request, no matter what the cost of improvements might be. From Day 1, arena opponents have considered the building a poor way to spend public money. Now they have 41.9 million more reasons to howl.

That’s how many dollars the Bobcats and CRVA have requested from Charlotte, the Observer’s Steve Harrison reported last week. The Bobcats, who are the main tenant and operate the building, are asking for $34.1 million in improvements. The CRVA, which is reimbursed by the team for maintaining items like plumbing and flooring, has requested $7.8 million.

There are obvious questions about how much some fixes are needed and how much the city should contribute to them. But let’s dispose quickly of one question: Should the city, which owns the arena, help pay for significant improvements? Of course.

First, the arena’s lease says the city must keep the property among the most modern in the NBA, so that the team can “maintain economic competitiveness and revenue potential.” But Charlotte doesn’t need a contract to know that keeping its arena in prime condition makes good business sense. Like any investment in property, there’s upkeep, and ignoring those responsibilities means wasting the initial commitment you made.

So far, that investment has been a good one. The arena has been a catalyst for uptown development. It has brought money to the city and its businesses by attracting events such as the CIAA basketball tournament. And, of course, it played a key role in helping Charlotte land the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which was invaluable to the city’s brand.

That doesn’t, however, mean the city should blindly empty its wallet of $41.9 million. The arena’s lease says that if half of NBA arenas have made an improvement since 2005, Charlotte is obligated to pay for a similar update. Some of the improvements requested by the team, such as $7.7 million for a “scoring and video update,” might fall under those guidelines. Some, like $1.42 million to move a ticket office, don’t seem to.

The Bobcats must submit a detailed justification for all items – a process that’s just beginning now – and City Council members will need to take a hard look at those requests. If half of NBA arenas haven’t made their youth activity areas more elaborate than the Bobcats’, Charlotte isn’t required to pay the $2.5 million to do so. But if an improved youth activity center would bring a significant benefit, council members should consider it.

All of which promises a lot of gray area for the city and Bobcats to negotiate. Council members should be transparent about the requests, and they should be thoughtful. The arena was a smart investment, as is keeping it modern. But now is not the time to throw bad money after good.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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