A new chapter is close for venerable American Legion Memorial Stadium – renovating the field to accommodate professional soccer.
Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg Park and Recreation that operates the stadium, and Jim McPhilliamy, managing partner for the infant Charlotte Independence United Soccer League pro team, said they are close to an agreement on a $4 million renovation that includes widening the field.
That agreement must get approval first from County Manager Dena Diorio – and then county commissioners.
“I think we can ink a deal soon and get it moving,” Garges said. He said the stadium’s rock-covered walls would be moved back and the corners “notched to make it larger for soccer.”
The team hopes the renovations would help lure Major League Soccer to Charlotte. The stadium recently underwent another renovation for the Major League Lacrosse Charlotte Hounds, which McPhilliamy and his partners also own. It would still host high school football games and other sports and civic events.
Under the working agreement, Mecklenburg would contribute half the renovation costs, but wants a guarantee from McPhilliamy’s group that it would be able to recoup that money over five to seven years. Garges said it could be done by getting a share of the ticket or concession sales.
McPhilliamy said the team is agreeable, but thinks a cleaner pay-back would be to rent the stadium from the county.
“It just makes it simpler,” he said. “We rent for this many dates and then I’m guaranteed that they are my dates.”
When the team was announced last year, it had hoped to play its first game in March at Memorial Stadium.
McPhilliamy took the blame for the hold-up of the agreement, saying he’s working to finalize a venue for the team to play this season.
“I haven’t been stonewalling the county, I’ve just got to get stuff done for the 2015 season that begins in 78 days,” he said. “In principle, we’ve all agreed we can get there.”
‘A great asset’ for city
The now-valuable land for the stadium, neighboring Grady Cole Center and parts of Independence Park – the city’s first public park – across Independence Boulevard was donated at the turn of the 20th century by two families. Deeds restricted the land be used for recreation.
The main portion of the park was once Charlotte’s waterworks department, with a pond.
The stadium, built with federal WPA money, was dedicated to World War I veterans by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
It is a local historic landmark. With the recent renovation for pro lacrosse and pending changes for soccer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission had to assess the impact, consulting director Dan Morrill said.
“We were very careful with that assessment but also very accommodating,” Morrill said. “The reality was that in order for the stadium to be appreciated it’s got to be of service to the community.
“For the purposes as a venue for professional sports, American Legion Memorial Stadium is actually a great asset to Charlotte.”
For the renovations, Garges said, “we’ll keep the historical integrity of the stadium.”
His department’s master plan for the stadium includes replacing the rickety press box, putting in more seats and building a concourse on the south side. A total renovation would cost about $18 million, he said.
The Grady Cole Center was built in 1954 to replace the city’s fire-gutted armory.
Garges said he’d ultimately like to see the center replaced by a new field house that would serve the stadium. He said Grady Cole doesn’t hold the historic importance and nostalgia of Memorial Stadium.
“The locker rooms for Memorial Stadium are in Grady Cole and they are really spartan,” he said. “A new field house and the renovations to the stadium would take the whole complex into the next 50 years. But the first thing we’ve got to do is get soccer playing there.”