In Charlotte City Council’s first public discussion about helping pay for a Major League Soccer stadium Thursday, economic mobility and the Keith Lamont Scott shooting were as much of the debate as whether soccer would attract visitors and grow the local economy.
The city is considering whether to spend roughly $30 million to help pay for a new $175 million stadium in Elizabeth, on the site of Memorial Stadium. After nearly two hours of discussion, however, plenty of questions remained unanswered about Marcus Smith’s bid to land an MLS team.
Under the proposal, the city’s money would come from hotel/motel occupancy taxes, which are restricted by state law to tourism projects. Council members are struggling with the wisdom of spending millions on a stadium with the one-year anniversary of the Scott protests approaching in September.
“The amount of public money is an issue,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, told Smith during the council’s economic development meeting. “We are looking at income and racial disparities. There is a $900 million school bond this fall.”
At-large council member Julie Eiselt told Smith one of her concerns is the stadium site in Elizabeth, a prosperous area.
“I have no doubt soccer would be transformational,” she said. “But it’s not about soccer; it’s about the stadium.”
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, a Democrat who is running for mayor, said she wants more information about how the team could help minority-owned businesses.
Asked by council member Dimple Ajmera whether the city’s minor-league soccer team, the Charlotte Independence, could remain if Charlotte landed an MLS team, Smith said he wasn’t sure.
A coexistence with the Independence is one thing council wants explained before the economic development committee meets again to discuss the stadium funding on Aug. 17. Lyles also asked for a detailed comparison of the financial details of other cities bidding for MLS teams.
Roberts pointed out another issue: a lack of deeper engagement with Charlotte’s fast-growing Latino population. Thirty-four percent of MLS fans are Hispanic, noted Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray, citing Nielsen data.
The Aug. 17 meeting will be used to address details about how much money the city could spend on the stadium as well as how much money would be left in the city’s hospitality taxes for other projects.
Smith and city officials have stressed that the money being considered for the stadium couldn’t be used for projects such as affordable housing or for police.
But Republican Ed Driggs said it wouldn’t be hard for the city to shift money around to make that possible.
He pointed to a planned expansion of Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium that will create a new building between the facilities. That project – known as “The Link” – is being funded with money from the 2013 capital improvement plan.
Driggs said the city could easily use the $30 million for the soccer stadium on the Bojangles’/Ovens project. The city could then use the bond money to build affordable housing.
At the start of the meeting, City Manager Marcus Jones said this was a chance for the city have a “reset” in its consideration over whether to support soccer. Tourism officials cite Major League Soccer as a way to make Charlotte more competitive.
“We believe MLS will elevate Charlotte’s profile in a way that a lot of different investments can’t, ultimately attracting investment opportunities, new residents and visitors,” CRVA’s Murray said.
When the issue was first floated in January, council members felt the process was rushed. Jones said the soccer discussion was delayed until the city could “deal with the Letter to the Community” in the budget, which was approved in June.
The letter was the council’s response to the Scott protests and riots. In it, council members said they would focus on building more affordable housing, increasing job opportunities and improving the relationship between police and the community.
“Now is the perfect time to have the discussion about soccer,” Jones said.
Mecklenburg County owns Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center, which would be razed for the stadium.
County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed capital budget included $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $43.5 million for fiscal year 2020. After that, the county would begin collecting lease payments of $4.25 million a year from the potential soccer team.
Commissioners have delayed a vote on their portion of the soccer stadium. Some commissioners have said they want the city to also be a partner in the project.