Politics & Government

How a fast-approaching deadline is adding a challenge for Charlotte soccer deal

Under a proposal, Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center would be demolished to make room for a new 20,000-seat stadium for a possible Major League Soccer team.
Under a proposal, Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center would be demolished to make room for a new 20,000-seat stadium for a possible Major League Soccer team. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Major League Soccer reaffirmed Thursday that applications for expansion franchises are due midnight Jan. 31 – a deadline that puts pressure on city and county leaders, who have two weeks to decide if they want to help fund a new stadium.

The City Council hasn’t yet met once about the new soccer stadium. The city was going to hold a closed session meeting on Jan. 9, but postponed the meeting.

Mecklenburg County commissioners have met once in closed session about the proposal from billionaire track owner Bruton Smith and his son Marcus Smith.

Of the two governing bodies, the county has the heaviest lifting on the project.

The county owns Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center, which would be demolished for the new $150 million, 20,000-seat stadium. The county, the city and the local ownership group would each contribute $50 million.

Commissioners have several decisions.

Should they demolish the existing buildings? Should they donate or sell the land to the Smiths – or should they continue to maintain ownership of the land and allow the team to manage the new stadium?

And perhaps the biggest question: Should the county spend $50 million toward the stadium?

Republican Commissioner Bill James, who is skeptical of the plan, has said he doesn’t think there is enough time to fully vet it. Democrat Pat Cotham said Friday that she’s concerned there isn’t enough time to include the public in any plan. Cotham said she hasn’t spoken with County Manager Dena Diorio about the stadium proposal this week.

“I’m not sure that’s doable,” she said about a Jan. 31 deadline. “People expect me to do my homework. They expect me to study.”

James and Cotham have said they had heard that MLS was considering extending the deadline into February.

But Sean Dennison, MLS senior director of communications, said Thursday that the deadline is still Jan. 31.

The city’s role is simpler.

The proposal calls for the city to also contribute $50 million to the stadium. That money would come from hotel/motel occupancy taxes, which have to be used for tourism-related purposes. That makes it easier for the City Council to support using public money on a private venture.

In the last four years, council members have approved spending more than $120 million in hotel/motel taxes to improve and renovate Bank of America Stadium and the Spectrum Center, where the Charlotte Hornets play.

The city and county are not officially commenting on the stadium negotiations.

Gregg Watkins, a spokesman for Mayor Jennifer Roberts, said Friday Roberts is still working on a soccer plan.

If Charlotte is awarded a team, MLS would not have a contract with either the city or the county and no direct financial agreement with them. The league would have an agreement with the Smiths.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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