The city of Charlotte is considering using tourism money to help demolish and rebuild American Legion Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth to become a home for a Major League Soccer franchise.
Local investors who bought a Charlotte minor-league soccer team last year have said they would like to land a Major League Soccer team in Charlotte.
Jim McPhilliamy, president and managing partner of the team, the Charlotte Independence, has had several meetings with the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department – which owns the stadium – the city and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
A favored concept would be to demolish the existing stadium, which was built in the 1930s. After being rebuilt, the field would be wider – 75 yards across – to accommodate an MLS team.
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It would first be rebuilt with about 9,000 seats to handle events such as high school football that the stadium hosts. The stadium now has about 20,000 seats.
It would be expanded to as many as 20,000 or 25,000 seats if the city lands an MLS team. That second phase of construction would likely include suites and other amenities that an MLS team would desire.
Jim Garges, the county’s park and recreation director, said he’s open to the idea – so long as the other public entities and private investors help fund the project.
“We have been talking about what’s the next step for the stadium,” Garges said. “It’s probably a teardown and rebuild, so we can accommodate Major League Soccer if there is an interest someday. We want it to remain viable.”
Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble said the city has had preliminary meetings about the idea.
“Is there a role for tourism dollars?” Kimble said.
He said money from the city’s general fund – which pays for police, fire and roads, among other things – would not be used. Instead, the city would turn to its taxes that are restricted by state law for tourism: a tax on hotel and motel room occupancy and a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages.
In recent years, the city has used those taxes to pay for a number of stadium and arena projects.
The city is spending $87.5 million on improvements for Bank of America Stadium, and it gave the Charlotte Knights $8 million to help build a new uptown baseball stadium. The city is also spending tourism dollars on renovations for Bojangles’ Coliseum and Time Warner Cable Arena.
Kimble said soccer is “on the city’s radar screen” as a way to increase tourism and economic development.
The city has worked to bring international soccer matches to Bank of America Stadium, including a high-profile game last summer between Liverpool and AC Milan. There are two other matches at the stadium this summer.
The city has been able to attract the games in part because the Panthers have agreed to waive a $250,000 stadium rental fee. The rental waivers were part of the nearly $90 million in stadium improvements the city and the team agreed to in 2013.
McPhilliamy’s Charlotte Independence, members of the United Soccer League, play home games at the Ramblewood Soccer Complex off Nations Ford Road. McPhilliamy also owns the Charlotte Hounds, a professional lacrosse team that plays at Memorial Stadium.
He said he’s enthusiastic about the city and county’s concept for rebuilding Memorial Stadium. He said the team would be willing to contribute financially to the project.
“I think if you look at Memorial Stadium and you stand at the center of the field, you could envision something that would be one of the best stadiums in the U.S., with the view of downtown and its location,” he said.
Garges said tearing down and rebuilding the stadium with a small “lower bowl” of 9,000 seats would cost $15 million to $20 million. The county also must decide the future of the adjacent Grady Cole Center, and whether it too would need to be rebuilt.
A second phase of the stadium project – the upper bowl to add 10,000 to 15,000 more seats – would cost millions more.
“Show us the money,” Garges said about private money and tourism funds that would help pay for the project.
Major League Soccer has become a thriving league. It began play in 1996 with 10 teams and now has 20 teams.
The league has said it will expand by two additional teams in 2017, in Atlanta and Minneapolis. Charlotte would like to be part of additional expansion after that.
McPhilliamy said having a plan for Memorial Stadium would give Charlotte a “seat at the table” when the league considers future teams.