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Deadline looming, Mecklenburg, Charlotte asked to pay $87.5 million for new soccer stadium

Marcus Smith may need to invest more to keep soccer deal alive

Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on the prospects of Charlotte winning a Major League Soccer expansion team.
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Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on the prospects of Charlotte winning a Major League Soccer expansion team.

With a deadline less than two weeks away, Mecklenburg County on Friday released details of a proposed $175 million soccer stadium for which the county and city of Charlotte are each asked to contribute up to $43.75 million.

Investors headed by speedway magnate Bruton Smith and his son Marcus would pay the other $87.5 million of the Major League Soccer stadium to be built on the site of the county’s Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth.

In addition to its contribution toward construction, Mecklenburg County would finance $75 million of the team’s costs and be reimbursed at $4.3 million annually over 25 years. The county would manage design and construction of the stadium.

We think landing an MLS franchise is nothing short of the the defining accomplishment of our generation.

Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners

Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, one of the groups pushing for the new stadium and franchise, said a Jan. 31 deadline adds urgency to the city and county’s decision on whether to contribute public funds.

“We really wish we had more time to do this,” Smith told the Observer. “To have this kind of a conversation and consider this kind of investment for the community, we would never do it this quickly. However, this is a competitive situation.”

Smith also said the new stadium would offer an opportunity to help heal the racial divisions in Charlotte that erupted following the Sept. 20 Keith Lamont Scott shooting by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer.

“This is a $175 million public project,” said Smith. “We as a city were changed last September ... This is an opportunity for us to have a really large investment and think through how do we do it differently?” The project could offer chances for worker apprenticeships or greater minority-owned business participation, Smith said.

“We think landing an MLS franchise is nothing short of the the defining accomplishment of our generation,” he said.

In early January, county commissioners meeting in closed session heard an initial proposal for a $150 million stadium for which the county and city would each pay $50 million.

An application for the expansion team, which has to include a plan for a 20,000- to 30,000-seat stadium, has to be filed by Jan. 31, shortening the time for public discussion of the proposal. County commissioners will hold a public forum on the stadium at 3 p.m. Tuesday, and are expected to vote at a budget retreat Thursday. The city is expected to hold a closed session Monday on the proposal.

County board Chair Ella Scarborough said she wants to hear from constituents Tuesday before deciding how to vote. But she added, “It’s most important to me that we do have soccer in Mecklenburg County. Charlotte is kind of above minor league right now, that’s my opinion.”

Two other Democrats, Vilma Leake and Dumont Clarke, said they’re undecided. Clarke, who lives in Elizabeth, said residents have pressed for studies of parking and traffic, master planning for neighboring Independence Park and a connector from the park to Little Sugar Creek Greenway. All four elements are included in the stadium proposal.

Two of the three Republicans on the county board said they will vote against the proposal, and a third, Matthew Ridenhour, said he’s undecided but concerned about the amount of public money involved.

“At the end of the day, Mecklenburg County taxpayers will be responsible for a $44 million investment and a $75 million loan,” said Republican Jim Puckett, “and if things go south, Mecklenburg County taxpayers will be the ones holding the bag.”

Other details of the proposal:

▪ The team and the county would each contribute $150,000 a year to a capital reserve fund.

▪ The team would control use and operation of the stadium, and pay for operating costs. It would commit to play in the stadium for 25 years but may end the agreement after 15 years if it’s “no longer economically viable.” The county may recover damages if the team leaves sooner than 25 years.

▪ The stadium would be available for up to 20 amateur sports events a year through the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and the county.

▪ The team would pay up to $100,000 for traffic and parking studies under a “potential” agreement with the Elizabeth Neighborhood Association, and would have access to parking shared between the county and nearby Central Piedmont Community College.

▪ The team will agree to play in the stadium for 25 years, according to the deal, which will also include damages in the event that the team backs out of the agreement.

▪ The team has agreed to pay $100,000 to do parking and traffic studies to understand the stadium’s impact on the surrounding Elizabeth neighborhood.

The city, county and CRVA said in a joint statement Thursday that “we are confident that an MLS team would be successful in the Queen City.”

But some county commissioners have doubts about the proposal. Some Charlotte City Council members, meanwhile, have expressed interest in placing the stadium at the former site of Eastland Mall in eastern Charlotte.

Marcus Smith said that’s not a possibility.

“We did a lot of due diligence on the Eastland property,” said Smith. He said the league has indicated that it’s not interested in a stadium that’s not downtown.

“It became clear that MLS is really favoring a downtown location ... A winning bid really has to have the very best location, and for MLS, they’ve identified that as a downtown.”

Commissioners were told in early January that the new stadium could spur between $500 million and $700 million in new nearby development and help provide riders for the Charlotte streetcar.

Michael Smith said the plan could spur more development throughout the area around Memorial Stadium.

“We think there’s about 60 acres over there that offer an opportunity for redevelopment, and this will enhance the Elizabeth Avenue corridor,” said Smith.

In December the county put on hold plans for a $24 million renovation of Memorial Stadium that had been discussed by the CRVA and the Charlotte Independence minor league soccer team. Under that plan, the CRVA, the county and the Charlotte Independence would each spend $8 million.

County Manager Dena Diorio said that no matter what happens with the MLS bid, Memorial Stadium needs a major overhaul.

“There are electrical issues and mechanical problems,” said Diorio. “This is a stadium that is in disrepair and will continue to deteriorate if we don’t do something with it.”

After experiences in building sports venues for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the minor league Charlotte Knights baseball team, Diorio told a press conference, “Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a winning model. We believe we know how to do this.”

Marcus Smith told reporters that while the team commissioned no economic studies of a potential fan base in Charlotte, major-league soccer has seen a swell of fan interest across the country. “As a community, we’ve had a few years of building excitement,” he said.

Observer staff writer Katie Peralta contributed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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