After the Keith Lamont Scott protests and riots, the Charlotte City Council wrote a “Letter to the Community,” pledging to build more affordable housing, create good-paying jobs and improve the police’s relationship with the community.
Council members often said it was “no longer business as usual.”
The letter said: “We will lead. We will act. We will do this together.”
But a vote Monday raises questions about whether council members are still focused on those goals, and whether the city’s elected officials put the possibility of landing a professional soccer team ahead of projects for low-income areas.
The vote was about how to fund a new building that will connect Bojangles’ Coliseum with Ovens Auditorium, adding restrooms and meeting and kitchen space.
All council members supported the project.
The question was how to pay for it.
The cost of the connector – $18.5 million – is coming from the city’s $900 million capital improvement program. That program builds roads, housing, sidewalks and other infrastructure throughout the city – and its $900 million, approved four years ago, is slated to last into early next decade.
City Council member Ed Driggs proposed Monday that the city use hotel/motel occupancy tax money instead for the connector.
State law says the city can only use hotel/motel taxes for tourism projects, not for projects like affordable housing or more police.
Because Bojangles’ and Ovens are tourism venues, Driggs said it made sense to use tourism money to improve them. That would allow the city to spend the $18.5 million on something else – including new sidewalks or projects and ideas outlined in the “Letter to the Community.”
But using hotel/motel tax dollars for the Bojangles’/Ovens project could make it more difficult for the city to help fund a new soccer stadium in Elizabeth.
Driggs’ plan failed in a 5-4 vote.
“I think we missed an opportunity to do something bold, to take some real action to demonstrate our commitment to the letter,” Driggs said Tuesday. “We have worked hard as a council, but we could have demonstrated to the community that we really meant it.”
Republicans Driggs and Kenny Smith voted to use hotel/motel tax dollars for the project, along with Democrats Julie Eiselt and LaWana Mayfield.
Democrats James Mitchell, Vi Lyles, Patsy Kinsey, Greg Phipps and Dimple Ajmera rejected that plan.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts did not give an opinion on what council members should do.
Claire Fallon didn’t attend the meeting. Al Austin is no longer on council, and his replacement, Carlenia Ivory, hadn’t been sworn in yet.
Driggs said he thought council members voted against his plan in part because they are worried there wouldn’t be enough hotel/motel tax dollars left for a new soccer stadium. Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports is trying to bring an expansion Major League Soccer team to the city, and council members are debating whether to help subsidize a new $175 million stadium for it.
“Soccer was a key part of the discussion,” Driggs said. “I think the public is concerned because we could find $30 million for soccer, but only $6 million (in new money) dedicated for housing.”
The city is planning to add $60 million to its Housing Trust Fund from 2014 to 2020. The $6 million Driggs is mentioned is on top of that.
Mayfield is one of the council’s most liberal members, but supported Driggs, one of the most conservative members.
“We need to be more responsive to the commitment we made to the community,” Driggs said. “We need to uphold it.”
Smith said, “We aren’t measured by letters. We are measured by actions.”
The $18.5 million slated for the Bojangles’/Ovens link is more than the city’s planned $15 million to the Housing Trust Fund over the next two years. It’s also more than a planned $10.4 million remake of the Monroe Road corridor, which will widen sidewalks, add bike lanes and on-street parking, and improve the look of existing buildings.
Mitchell has been the council’s most enthusiastic supporter of helping pay for a new soccer stadium. In his comments, he suggested that Driggs and Smith were trying to sabotage soccer by using the hotel/motel tax dollars for the Bojangles’ project. He said council members shouldn’t make a change because it had already been decided in committee.
Lyles, who is running for mayor, also voted against the change.
She hasn’t said whether she supports or opposes a soccer stadium. She said Monday the city “could have a conversation” about paying for the project in a different way but she wasn’t comfortable making a move that night.
Kinsey, who is opposed to funding the soccer stadium, said she is “worried about changing money back and forth.”
She said the city’s Housing Trust Fund still has money available, so new money for housing might not be needed at this time.
Driggs said the city could create a new housing program that gave renters subsidies.
Ajmera represents east Charlotte, near Bojangles’ Coliseum. She said she was concerned that the money for the Bojangles’ project would be spent in other parts of the city if the city used hotel/motel taxes, but she didn’t ask her colleagues for a commitment that the money remain in east Charlotte.