Support for baseball stadium now in question

A plan to bring a minor-league baseball stadium to uptown has hit another snag.

Mecklenburg County commissioners Dan Ramirez and Karen Bentley – who have frequently supported the baseball deal – now want more discussion about the project in light of the economic downturn. Ramirez has asked his colleagues to review whether the county should continue with the stadium deal, or let future commissioners decide how to proceed.

Ramirez stressed that he doesn't yet know how he'll vote, saying he needs more information first. But Bentley said as of now, she's not likely to support a related deal to buy land for a new park in Third Ward next to the baseball stadium. She says the money might be better spent on other county projects.

How Ramirez and Bentley vote is vital because commissioners now find themselves split evenly along party lines after the sudden death of Democrat Valerie Woodard last week.

Democrats have been nearly unanimous in their support for parts of the baseball project over the years. However, now they'll need at least one Republican to join them to approve any actions related to the plan before the board finishes its term in December or a successor to Woodard is named.

Republicans Dan Bishop and Bill James have consistently opposed the project and said they don't plan to change their minds.

Ramirez wanted to discuss the baseball deal on Tuesday, but commissioners deferred it until later this month. They also pushed back a closed session item to spend $19 million for the park land in Third Ward because for now, there aren't enough votes to proceed with the purchase.

Lawsuit delaying land deal

Acquisition of the park land has already been delayed for months because of lawsuits challenging the baseball deal. The project originally was supposed to be a swap of public and private lands that also would have added a mixed-used project in Second Ward.

However after the lawsuits were filed, a majority of commissioners agreed to use non-voter approved bonds to buy the park land. In exchange, the developer of the mixed-use project would purchase the Second Ward property for the same price, effectively negating the cost to the county.

The purchase is important because it is one of two conditions that must be met before the Charlotte Knights can begin construction of their planned 10,000-seat stadium. The baseball team also needs to close on a financing deal for the stadium – an obstacle that some commissioners say is reviving discussions about the future of the project.

James said commissioners were told the county needed to buy the park land by Oct. 15 because the property owners were not sure if they could get continued support for their involvement in the deal if the purchase was delayed further.

Clock may be ticking

Bobbie Shields, the county's general manager who has overseen work on the baseball deal, said there really isn't a deadline for the county to purchase the land. “But I do think … that the opportunity to purchase the land will not be there forever,” he said.

Democrats Parks Helms, Norman Mitchell and Dumont Clarke said they plan to support buying the park land because they don't want all the work on the project to go to waste.

“We are this close to getting it done,” Clarke said. “In my view, it would be a real tragedy to have spent all the money planning for this park – and we've even got the construction drawings under way – to not proceed.”

Watching the economy

But Bishop panned the idea, saying he thinks the land purchase would be reckless given the economy and the lack of firm financing for the stadium. He also cited rumors that the baseball team could leave the market altogether.

Bentley said that even if she votes against the land purchase, that doesn't mean the entire baseball project is over.

“My preference is we stop and take a deep breath and allow time to help us understand what we're dealing with better …,” she said. “That's just the prudent way for local government to handle this.”