Could the state of North Carolina tilt the playing field to Raleigh over Charlotte in the fight for a Major League Soccer franchise?
That’s what two Mecklenburg County lawmakers said Thursday.
Their accusations came a day after a Raleigh group met with MLS officials and unveiled plans for a $150 million stadium and entertainment complex worth hundreds of millions of dollars on state-owned land in downtown Raleigh.
“The state needs to butt out of the Raleigh bid,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius. “If they’re doing that, it’s wrong and they need to stop.”
Charlotte and Raleigh are among 12 cities across the country vying for a franchise. In effect, the North Carolina cities are also competing with each other.
On Tuesday, Major League Soccer officials met in Charlotte with a local ownership group hoping to lure an expansion team to a new, $175 million stadium in Elizabeth. The group – led by Marcus Smith, son of billionaire race track owner Bruton Smith – has asked for public tax dollars to help pay for it.
Mecklenburg County’s proposed capital budget includes nearly $115 million for the stadium over two years, an amount that would be offset by lease payments of $4.25 million a year. Charlotte city officials are considering a contribution of $30 million.
The Raleigh group, the North Carolina Football Club, has not asked local or state governments for a direct contribution other than road and other infrastructure improvements.
But the group is asking to lease 13 acres of state property a block north of the General Assembly. That’s half of what’s known as the state government complex. The group would raze several state buildings, including the 40-year-old, 15-story Archdale Building, home to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. The new facility would include more than 750,000 square feet of space to eventually accommodate state employees and other tenants.
A football club spokesman said Thursday there’s been no decision on how much the group would pay to lease the land.
But like Tarte, Sen. Joel Ford said a lease would effectively put the state on Raleigh’s side.
“I don’t believe that the state should be picking winners and losers when it comes to Major League Soccer,” said Ford, a Charlotte Democrat running for mayor. “The state would be giving a leg up to one city over another.”
State officials were still evaluating the Raleigh offer Thursday.
“We are aware that the North Carolina Football Club is making a proposal to the state, and we look forward to reviewing the details of their proposal,” Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said Thursday.
Alexandra Mendoza, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Administration, said the department only received the proposal this week.
Football club owner Steve Malik on Tuesday sent the stadium proposal to Berger, Gov. Roy Cooper and state House Speaker Tim Moore.
Renderings from the football club show high-rise buildings towering over an open-roof soccer stadium. A real estate executive involved declined to comment on specifics, saying only that he’s eager to help the state government and the football club.
“If the (Raleigh) area would be redeveloped with a major league team, it would be great for the Triangle and North Carolina,” said state Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and leading House budget writer.
Charlotte’s contribution to the Smith bid would come from hotel/motel occupancy taxes, which are restricted by state law to tourism projects. But at a committee meeting Thursday, council members struggled with the wisdom of spending millions on a stadium while other needs are pressing.
Not everyone in Charlotte is concerned about the state’s role in the Raleigh proposal.
“I don’t think it should be perceived as favoritism to one city or another,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat. “The state doesn’t have a choice but to be a participant (in Raleigh) because they own the land in question.”
Staff writer Matthew Adams of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.