As part of a bid to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to Charlotte, Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center in Elizabeth would be demolished to make way for a $150 million, 20,000-seat stadium.
Mecklenburg County commissioners met in closed session Wednesday night to discuss the proposal, which calls for the city of Charlotte and the county to each spend $50 million. The local ownership group of Bruton Smith and his son, Marcus, who are working to land the team, would also spend $50 million.
Commissioners did not vote on the plan, and several elected officials questioned whether the public should spend so much money on a new stadium. The City Council will likely soon discuss the issue in closed session.
Charlotte is among 10 cities that have expressed interest in getting a Major League Soccer team. Bruton Smith, the billionaire race track owner, and his son, Marcus, CEO of Speedway Motorsports and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, are leading the local effort.
In a call with reporters last month, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said the Smiths have “a lot of energy, and lots of professional sports experience.” And Marcus Smith said Charlotte would be “a great addition to the league, and an MLS club would be a great addition to Charlotte.”
For more than a year, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the county and the minor league Charlotte Independence soccer team have discussed a much less extensive renovation of Memorial Stadium, which was built in the 1930s.
Today’s stadium has about 17,000 seats. The plan developed by the Charlotte Independence called for building a smaller stadium with 10,000 seats for $24 million. Under that proposal, the county, CRVA and the Independence would each have spent $8 million.
But when the Smiths said they were interested in pursuing an MLS team, that idea was put on hold.
Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said Marcus Smith is “the point for inquiries regarding the proposed MLS team,” but didn’t have any additional comments.
Jim McPhilliamy, managing partner of the Independence, said he is not involved in the MLS talks.
The Smiths did not attend Wednesday’s closed session meeting. The only people in the room were commissioners, County Manager Dena Diorio and County Attorney Marvin Bethune.
Among the points in Diorio’s presentation:
▪ Besides the benefits of having a team, Diorio’s presentation said the new stadium would help provide riders for the streetcar, which has a stop a block away.
▪ The stadium could spur between $500 million and $700 million in new nearby development. But it’s unclear where the new development would be. Land west of the stadium is owned by Central Piedmont Community College. Independence Park is to the south.
▪ Under the plan, the county would own the new stadium. But the ownership group would also want control of the facility, much like the Charlotte Hornets have with the Spectrum Center, a city-owned building.
The proposal would also require the county to set aside $250,000 each year for a maintenance account.
The county and city could be able to use the new stadium for 20 free dates.
▪ It’s unclear whether the county would rebuild the Grady Cole Center, and, if so, where it would be.
The center, built in the 1950s, is a 3,000-seat indoor venue adjacent to Memorial Stadium. The Charlotte Hornets basketball team from the 1980s once practiced there.
“To lose Grady Cole with no replacement plan concerns me,” said Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham, who said she’s “not jumping up and down” over the proposal.
Under the new Charlotte plan, the city would use hotel/motel occupancy tax money for the stadium. The county’s share would come from property taxes.
There are other questions. One is whether the Elizabeth neighborhood will accept the heavier traffic that would come with a larger stadium with more events.
Ladd Van Devender, treasurer of the Elizabeth Community Association, said residents haven’t discussed the possibility of an MLS stadium.
“There are concerns overall of traffic flow and parking,” he said. “But there hasn’t been any outcry yet.”
Elsewhere in the state, North Carolina F.C., which operated as the Carolina RailHawks in Cary for 10 years, recently launched its own campaign to land an MLS team.
All interested expansion owners must submit their applications by Jan. 31. The MLS has said that along with sufficient ownership backing, some of the criteria under consideration include a “comprehensive stadium plan” for a facility that will hold 20,000 – 30,000, a geographically fitting market that is attractive to sponsors and media, and a history of strong fan support for soccer.