City says it erred on cost figures for NASCAR hall

Charlotte city staff members acknowledged this week that when they asked City Council to increase the NASCAR Hall of Fame budget they overstated costs at two comparable museums.

The figures made the NASCAR project seem more conservatively priced compared with others in the industry. The context gave some council members comfort in voting for a $32 million boost to the hall's budget Monday.

City staff said Wednesday they could not explain the math behind their estimate for the most expensive museum – the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

“Somebody made a calculation and we're still trying to figure out how that calculation was made,” said Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble.

In interviews with the Observer, officials at three museums – the National Constitution Center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts – said Charlotte's estimates of their exhibit costs were too high.

In response to an Observer story Wednesday, city staff provided new, lower numbers for two of the three museums. Kimble said the information that museum officials gave the Observer did not reflect “apples-to-apples” comparisons to NASCAR's exhibit budget, which is $750 per square foot.

Experts say the NASCAR budget is high for a museum, but reasonable for an interactive, technologically advanced attraction.

Some council members said that in this case, they are more concerned about the public trust than the price tag. They often rely on city staff for technical information about their decisions, and some said the revelations will make them more skeptical in the future.

Councilman Michael Barnes has questioned attendance estimates for the NASCAR project. He said it reinforced his “no” vote on the budget increase. Councilman Edwin Peacock, who voted for the increase, said he felt “betrayed” and inclined to revisit the vote if city staff can't answer more questions about the discrepancies.

“This felt like a punch in the stomach,” Peacock said. “A fundamental trust has been broken.”

Others said they wanted to move on.

“We voted for it,” said Councilman James Mitchell. “We get to move forward and make sure this hall's state-of-the art.”

Councilman John Lassiter, who originally asked the staff about comparable museum costs, said he now has his answer.

“What I was concerned about was, were we dramatically spending more per square foot than our competition?” Lassiter said. “I'm comfortable that we're not overspending.”

After a day of research, city staff this week revised the cost of the National Constitution Center's exhibits, which opened in 2003, from $1,100 per square foot to $920 per square foot.

An official at the Constitution Center initially told the Observer the cost was closer to $300 per square foot. Later, after talking with Charlotte officials, he said that figure was inaccurate because it included an area that was too big and beyond the scope of the exhibit costs.

After a second day of research, city staff also revised the estimate for the Rock and Roll hall, built in 1995, from $600 to $549 per square foot. City spokeswoman Kim McMillan said the original number came from the staff of the Cleveland museum, but did not give a name.

A spokeswoman for the Rock and Roll hall told the Observer this week that the costs were between $300 and $400 per square foot. She could not be reached Thursday to explain the discrepancy.

The city has put the cost of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., at $500 per square foot. City staff said Thursday they were unable to reach John Doleva, president and CEO of the hall, to talk about that number.

He has told the Observer that the exhibit budget was around $320 per square foot when it was built in 2002. That included exhibit construction, electrical work, video and interactive exhibits, he said. It was unclear why his number and the city's were different.

The NASCAR hall, with a total budget of $195 million, is scheduled to open in spring of 2010 at the corner of Stonewall and Brevard streets.

The city is paying for its construction with hospitality taxes and the sale of land donated by the state – not property taxes. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority will operate it.