Politics & Government

County plans millions for parks. But critics question big share for soccer stadium.

Mecklenburg County plans to spend millions over the next six years to renovate parks and add greenways and recreation centers, but critics say the county could do much more if it weren’t sinking more than one-third of its recreation dollars into stadium renovations for a possible Major League Soccer team.

The county plans to spend $268 million for the park upgrades – including $100 million for stadium renovations for Memorial Stadium. County Manager Dena Diorio said that the stadium money wouldn’t go for other park projects if the city doesn’t land the team.

The proposed capital budget includes $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $47.5 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, whose prospective ownership group is led by Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports. Charlotte hasn’t been awarded an expansion team yet.

The public funding of the soccer stadium has been controversial since Smith unveiled his bid in Janaury.

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

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.

“We have to think about social equity in everything we do,” she said. “When private things like Discovery Place and MLS … are listed in your budget sheet, we pause and say, ‘Hey, what a minute.’ We don’t want this to happen at the expense of things that serve the public.”

Brian Cox, another commission member, said he sees the pros and cons of a new soccer stadium. But at the same time, the $71 million initial outlay is a “big piece to come out of your capital budget,” he said.

“There are still unfunded (bond) projects from 2008,” Cox said, including a planned renovation of the Mallard Creek Recreation Center. “A generation of kids will have been born and gone through high school before it’s done.”

Alicia Roberts, a member of a county advisory board for nature preserves, said she was bothered that the budget includes money for the soccer stadium as well as for the Discovery Place nature museum.

“In survey after survey, citizens note that they want more trails and parks, more greenspace,” she said. “But we’re putting things (in the parks budget) like a soccer stadium and a nature museum, which doesn’t make sense to me.”

Roberts, who said she was speaking as a resident and not in her role on the advisory board, thinks the county should fund the soccer and museum projects from another part of its budget. “We have a growing population, we have a limited amount of space. We need to make sure that our parks are growing and well maintained.”

But county Commissioner Trevor Fuller, a Democrat who supports the soccer plan, said planned parks projects aren’t hurting because of the soccer stadium deal, adding, “I don’t feel like there are things we’re not doing on the park and rec budget because we’re doing the soccer deal.”

If Charlotte is awarded a Major League Soccer team, the county would demolish Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center. In its place, the county and Smith would build a 20,000-seat, $175 million stadium that the county would own and the team would manage.

Ten other cities are bidding for four teams.

Sacramento is considered a favorite to win the first of four new teams, and other strong contenders include San Diego, Tampa Bay and Detroit.

If Charlotte doesn’t get a team, the tens of millions of dollars set aside for the stadium wouldn’t necessarily return to the parks and recreation capital budget.

County Manager Dena Diorio told the Observer by email that if Charlotte doesn’t land a team, the nearly $120 million for the stadium would return to the county’s pay-go fund and could be used for other things, such as schools.

Republican Commissioner Jim Puckett, who opposes the stadium agreement, said the county’s ability to fund the stadium so quickly shows that it has “prioritized MLS over schools and parks.” The money for the stadium, and other parks projects, comes from the county’s general fund, which is primarily paid for with property taxes.

Fuller said he “categorically rejects” Puckett’s claim, noting that the county is looking to put a bond referendum on the ballot this fall for nearly $1 billion in capital projects for schools.

Jim Garges, the county’s park and recreation director, referred questions about the soccer stadium and the capital budget to Diorio. He said the money for park and greenway projects – excluding the stadium – is “on par” with recent capital budgets since the 2008 recession.

Among the projects in the parks plan:

▪ $31.2 million for seven greenway segments, including the Little Sugar Creek Greenway from the S.C. state line to the historical site for President James Polk.

▪ $5.6 million to improve Independence Park, including renovating the Hawthorne Recreation Center, improving benches and lighting, and improving connections to Memorial Stadium and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

▪ $4.05 million for improvements to Pearl Street Park in midtown. Those upgrades are scheduled to coincide with a private developer, Peter Pappas, building a large mixed-use project on land nearby.

▪ $16 million for renovations to Discovery Place nature museum.

▪ $39 million for a new indoor facility, the Eastway Regional Recreation Center. There is also $40 million for a new indoor regional recreation center to serve the north Mecklenburg towns.

Garges said the two regional recreation centers will be between 100,000 and 120,000 square feet with an indoor pool and aquatic play area, like Ray’s Splash Planet. Garges said the county hopes the recreation centers can give visitors a wide range of healthy activities, including spin classes.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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