County money for soccer stadium could fall through unless Charlotte also contributes

Marcus Smith on bringing MLS Soccer to Charlotte

President and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. Marcus Smith talks about bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte, NC.
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President and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. Marcus Smith talks about bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte, NC.

In a setback for Major League Soccer in Charlotte, the Mecklenburg County commissioners pushed back a decision on spending $120 million for a new soccer stadium until August – and some commissioners don’t want to invest unless the city also contributes.

The decision is a harder bargaining position for the county, and it represents another roadblock for Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith’s quest to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to Charlotte.

County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed capital budget included $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $43.5 million for fiscal year 2020. After that, the county would begin collecting lease payments of $4.26 million a year from the potential soccer team. The total cost of the stadium, which would be built on the site of Memorial Stadium near uptown, has been estimated to be $175 million.

Earlier this year, Charlotte City Council had decided not to consider spending $43.75 million to help fund the stadium. When county commissioners tentatively approved the county’s funding plan in January in a 5-3 vote, some grumbled that the city also needed to be involved. Even without the city’s commitment, the project moved forward.

Major League Soccer officials say they will announce two new expansion teams by the end of 2017.

But Monday, Democrat Dumont Clarke said that he also wants the city to agree to spend $43.5 million before he votes for the county to spend anything.

“Why are we budgeting for this when our key partner isn’t willing to endorse it?” Clarke said in an interview Monday. “This gives the city a deadline to see what they will do.”

Marcus Smith said in a statement that the campaign for Major League Soccer would continue.

“The campaign for MLS continues. We will focus on informing city leaders about the benefits of MLS, so they can reach the best decision for our community. We encourage MLS supporters in Charlotte to make their voices heard prior to August 2nd,” he said.

Diorio said the county commissioners’ decision to delay the vote doesn’t hurt or help. “We’ve always had this discussion that it would be a partnership with the city.”

Already, Republicans Bill James, Jim Puckett and Matthew Ridenhour and Democrat Pat Cotham were against the plan. If Clarke or anyone else joins them, that would be a majority against using county tax dollars on Major League Soccer.

“It’s contingent on the city joining us,” Puckett said. “The money is being held and could be used otherwise, as late as August, if we decide to back out.”

There may not be much support from the city, especially in an election year.

“We’d be crazy to do it right now,” said council member Claire Fallon, a Democrat. “The people of Charlotte don’t want to spend the money.”

The city has historically been an enthusiastic participant in subsidizing sports teams and new sports stadiums. One reason is that the city has hotel/motel taxes that are set aside for tourism-related projects, like a soccer stadium.

The county’s money, on the other hand, is coming from its general fund.

On Facebook, Cotham said the stadium would delay parks projects voters approved in a 2008 referendum.

“It’s a bad deal,” Cotham said Monday. “We need to use that money for services we provide.”

In January, a majority of City Council and Mayor Jennifer Roberts said they didn’t want to consider soccer at that time. There are city elections this fall, and officials said they wanted to focus on addressing issues such as affordable housing that they prioritized after the Keith Scott protests and riots in September.

The Smiths and the city have not been in any formal discussions since them, both sides say.

Some council members have said the soccer funding might be discussed later this year or in early 2018, after the elections. But the county’s new deadline could mean the city has to vote earlier.

Diorio had placed the soccer money in the Park and Recreation capital plan.

Having the county’s proposed soccer investment placed in the same category as money for greenways and recreation centers is drawing added criticism, however, especially in light of Charlotte faring poorly in a national survey of access to parks. The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for urban parks, placed Charlotte 97th out of 100 cities.

The county’s advisory Park and Recreation Commission asked the county to remove the stadium from the county’s plan for parks because it’s “not a public recreation project and will not improve access to recreation opportunities for the citizens of Mecklenburg County.”

The commission’s chair, Elaine Powell, said in an interview that she and her colleagues scrutinize potential parks projects based on factors such as social equity and health and wellness.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs