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Charlotte’s Major League Soccer dreams are dead for now. Here’s how the deal unraveled

Charlotte’s bid to land a Major League Soccer expansion team is officially dead for now.

City Council member James Mitchell, who chairs the city’s economic development committee, confirmed that an agreement on public-private financing on the proposed $175 million soccer facility cannot be reached in time to meet the MLS’s upcoming decision date.

“It will not make the December deadline,” Mitchell told the Observer Monday. “We won’t make December to be considered.”

The three problems the city couldn’t overcome were control of the Memorial Stadium site, the fact that city elections are coming up (making a controversial vote on a big incentives package difficult) and stiff competition from other cities such as Nashville.

The $275 million in bonds that Nashville is considering to fund a prospective MLS stadium and improvements nearby are “just unbelievable,” Mitchell said, and set a new standard that was far above what he believed Charlotte could spend now.

Charlotte Motor Speedway CEO Marcus Smith, who heads the ownership group bidding for a team in Charlotte, told the Observer that he is still interested in landing an MLS team, but that it would be hard to imagine doing so without public money.

“Impossible is a big word, but what the city has indicated is that they’re not going to be able to come together with a public-private plan,” Smith said. “It’s sad for the city.”

The collapse of the bid follows months of back-and-forth about the use of public money to help pay for the proposed $175 million soccer facility on the site of aging Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth, owned by Mecklenburg County.

As part of the original deal put forth earlier this year, Mecklenburg County would have paid $71.25 million for the stadium next year and then another $30 million for fiscal year 2020. After that, the county would have collected lease payments of $4.25 million a year from the potential soccer team. The original framework for the deal also called for the city to also contribute $43.5 million – although the city later said it could only contribute up to $30 million.

Also under the deal, the ownership group would pay the $150 million expansion fee to MLS.

The deal faced a major blow in early August when Mecklenburg County commissioners voted to limit their financial contribution to giving the city of Charlotte the Memorial Stadium site, and nothing else. The surprise vote meant the remaining balance – more than $100 million – would have to be covered by the ownership group or the city.

“If you look around the country in modern sports arenas and different sports venues, you see the standard now is public private partnerships,” Smith said. “I don’t see it happening on an all-private level.”

Critics of the MLS deal have questioned whether Charlotte had a strong enough of an appetite for Major League Soccer to justify spending millions in taxpayer dollars for a new stadium. Council members have been hesitant to consider the project, saying that it was not properly vetted. Others said the city should be focused on other issues, such as improving economic inequality, building more affordable housing or expanding the city’s transit system.

The Carolina Panthers are also likely to want more upgrades to Bank of America Stadium, or possibly even a replacement stadium, as other teams around the league play in newer arenas.

“This has developed into a political football that has bounced along for the last year,” Smith said.

If Charlotte had been selected, Memorial Stadium and the adjacent Grady Cole Center would have been demolished to make way for the new soccer stadium. Some City Council members wanted other sites to be considered, such as the former Eastland Mall site in east Charlotte, but MLS told prospective bidders that they wanted a site in or near downtown.

Charlotte is one of 12 cities that have submitted bids for an MLS expansion team. MLS has said it will expand by four teams in the near future – at least two of them will be awarded this year, but the other two franchises could be awarded in 2018 or beyond.

Mitchell said the city still hopes to be included in the next MLS expansion round.

“We’ve both agreed to say we’re in it for the long haul,” he said of the soccer ownership group and the city. “We’ll see where we are then and try to stay engaged.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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