In November 2008, voters by a large margin approved $250 million in bonds to pay for parks, recreation centers and greenways across Mecklenburg County.
Nearly a decade later, only 38 of the 75 planned projects have been finished – and more than dozen haven’t even been funded.
The unfunded projects include new parks in Huntersville and Mint Hill, the locations of which are both identified as being within a “service gap area” of the county for parks. More than 10 miles of planned greenways are also unfunded.
This bond money is paying for improvements outlined in Park and Recreation’s 10-year master plan for meeting the needs of Charlotte’s growing population.
The 38 completed projects include a sportsplex in Matthews, the two-mile Toby Creek Greenway on UNC Charlotte’s campus and a shelter at Hornets Nest Park on Beatties Ford Road.
The unfunded projects are spread about the county in all six county commissioner districts – with an estimated cost of almost $50 million.
If they are not in this year’s capital budget, it may be 2024 before the projects would be eligible for reconsideration of funding, three county commissioners said.
The unfunded projects have been a subject of contention among county commissioners and citizen advocates, with division on whether the county should pay for a Major League Soccer stadium or use that money for other services. County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed capital budget includes $71.25 million in funding next year for the creation of a Major League Soccer stadium on the site of Memorial Stadium, and another $43.5 million for fiscal year 2020.
County commissioners will vote on whether to include funding for the stadium in the capital budget on Wednesday.
The county had seven years to issue the bond debt after voter approval in 2008. However, the N.C. Local Government Commission granted a three-year extension in 2015 to issue that debt. If it expires, the bond authorization will lapse.
In a 2008 board meeting, Commissioner Bill James said the intention of the county was to use the bond money in a five-year period.
Dale Folwell, the state treasurer and the chair of the state’s Local Government Commission, said the county has about $100 million of authorized bonds from the 2008 referendum that have not been issued.
Community leaders have for years urged the county to improve its parks. The Trust for Public Land ranks Charlotte’s parks as the 97th-lowest out of 100 large cities. The organization has placed Charlotte at the bottom of its list for multiple years.
County commissioners in 2008 were nearly unanimous in putting the park bond package on the ballot. But then-commissioner and current state Sen. Dan Bishop voted against the bond, saying it was unaffordable.
“I would not have that bond referendum go forth in an extraordinary year like this,” he said in 2008. “I would delay it and reduce it in size.”
Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, said the 2008 recession initially delayed funding for the projects.
Ed Barnhart, president of Greenways for Mecklenburg, said the park and recreation plans were promised nine years ago – long before discussing other projects.
“It is the job of our government to build the things they promised to build for us,” he said.
Soccer or parks?
Garges said the unfunded park projects are a high priority, but that the soccer stadium would benefit the community as well.
But the county’s Park and Recreation Commission urged the county earlier this year not to include the soccer stadium as a parks plan. Members argued that it’s not a public recreation project and wouldn’t improve access to recreation opportunities.
Garges said the current Memorial Stadium is outdated, and that it would be ideal if a new stadium could house Major League Soccer.
“In the end, it’s all about one pot of money and you do have to make decisions,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Puckett said in an email to commissioners Wednesday that he doesn’t understand the possible funding of the soccer stadium when the county lacks a clear understanding of how, and if, funds will be returned.
“The money that we’ll use on soccer could be used for any service in Mecklenburg County,” he said.
Brian Cox, member of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission, said the issue is about fulfilling promises to voters and a question of how the county spends property tax dollars.
He said people don’t like to frame the debate between Major League Soccer and parks as a choice, but that it is a choice.
“While parks advocates have been pretty patient, but all of a sudden $115 million in county property tax-sourced money is available to subsidize soccer, we start throwing our hands up saying, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, what about promises made to voters 10 years ago?’ ” Cox said.
At a June meeting, Commissioner George Dunlap said the soccer stadium project would spur economic development.
“Contrary to popular belief, everybody in Charlotte doesn’t want greenways,” he said.
Keeping public trust
The 2008 Park and Recreation bond referendum was approved by 62 percent of voters.
In a statement after the vote, Garges said, “We appreciate the commitment, hard work and trust of bond supporters. We salute the vision of the voters.”
Commissioner Pat Cotham said the delay in the 2008 park projects could hurt the upcoming school bond referendum in November.
The county voted in June to place a nearly $1 billion bond package for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on the upcoming ballot.
If approved, the $937 million bond package would build 10 schools, replace old schools and add to other campuses.
“I feel obligated to do what the people voted for, because that’s how we keep our trust,” Cotham said. “And if we don’t do that, I worry that they won’t support the bond in November.”
But the county budget does not exclude park funding as a whole – there are 14 park and recreation projects included in Diorio’s approved capital budget between fiscal years 2019 and 2023, totaling nearly $180 million.
Puckett said the county is not required by law to fulfill the exact proposed projects, but that the county has an obligation to do what the public has asked them to do.
“In 2008, citizens took the time to go to the polls to vote on specific projects that will not be funded now,” he said in a June commissioner’s meeting. “So, when people tell you what will happen with bond money, understand that that is what we say will happen, but it doesn’t have to happen.”
But Dunlap said it’s important to remember that the bond projects will eventually be completed.
“The park bonds are going to be completed, the question is when,” he said.
Metzler: 704-358-5433, @crmetzler
▪ Druid Hills Neighborhood Park (improvements)
▪ Ezell Farms Community Park in Mint Hill (new park)
▪ Mallard Creek Greenway – Mallard Creek Drive to David Taylor Drive including CATS Park and Ride (1.71 miles)
▪ Briar/Little Hope Creek Greenway – Keystone Court to Manning Drive (1.1 miles)
▪ McIntyre Creek Greenway – Beatties Ford to Clarencefield Drive (0.77 miles)
▪ Irwin Creek Greenway – Old Statesville Road to Allen Hills Park (2.2 miles)
▪ Eastfield Regional Park in Huntersville (new park)
▪ Briar Creek Greenway – Central Avenue to Commonwealth to Monroe Road (1.65 miles)
▪ Sugar Creek Greenway – Billy Graham Parkway to McDowell Farms Drive (3.3 miles)
▪ Naomi Drenan Recreation Center (improvements)
▪ Colonel Francis Beatty Regional Park (improvements)
▪ Mallard Creek Recreation Center (improvements)
▪ Park Road Park Shelter (improvements)