Politics & Government

After county issues soccer deadline, city still reluctant to spend millions on stadium

Marcus Smith on bringing MLS Soccer to Charlotte

President and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. Marcus Smith talks about bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte, NC.
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President and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. Marcus Smith talks about bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte, NC.

A day after Mecklenburg County commissioners gave the city of Charlotte an early August deadline to help fund a new soccer stadium, City Council members still appear reluctant to participate.

At-large member Julie Eiselt – a swing vote on many issues – said she can’t support spending $43.5 million on a new $175 million stadium in Elizabeth, to be built on the site of Memorial Stadium.

One problem, she said, is the location near booming uptown. Eiselt has said she would like the city to look at other sites where a stadium might provide more economic benefits, like Eastland Mall or north of uptown.

She also said she is reluctant to spend that much money on the project.

“I’m not a fan of the location, and if we are going to put public money into it, there has to be an economic benefit to it, and I’m not sure the Elizabeth needs a boost,” she said. “If they want to talk about another neighborhood like the North End, then maybe.”

Republican Ed Driggs said he was surprised by the county’s recent deadline.

“The idea that we’re now dealing with an August deadline is news,” he said. “We still don’t have a proper proposal. I personally haven’t been supportive of an investment like this.”

Mayor Jennifer Roberts could place the soccer stadium vote on the city’s agenda by herself.

Her spokesperson, Gregg Watkins, said the mayor has been speaking with council members about the county’s decision Monday. But he said he doesn’t think anything has changed since January, when council decided against the stadium proposal.

Mecklenburg commissioners voted unanimously Monday to delay a decision until August on spending $120 million for a new Major League Soccer stadium. In addition, a number of commissioners said they wouldn’t invest in the project unless the city also contributes.

County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed capital budget includes $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $43.5 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.

Republican Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he called Democratic Commissioner Dumont Clarke Sunday and expressed concerns about the soccer spending. Ridenhour said he and other critics worried about the message they would send voters by spending money for soccer while delaying other projects from a 2008 bond issue.

“We don’t want people to feel there’s no faith in the bond process and then not vote for (this fall’s) school bonds because of it,” Ridenhour said. He said Clarke called back Monday proposing the delay.

Major League Soccer officials say they will announce two new expansion teams by the end of 2017.

Supporters and opponents of soccer facility address county commissioners

When city and county officials were discussing the plan with prospective owner Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, it was assumed the City Council would vote to financially support the stadium. The city has hotel/motel tax dollars specifically set aside for tourism-related projects, like the soccer stadium.

But there are two complications for City Council members.

The first is that it’s an election year. Democratic Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and Republican Kenny Smith are both running for mayor, and Roberts is also seeking re-election.

The other hurdle is the Keith Lamont Scott protests and riots from September.

Council members were assailed by protesters for their handling of the shooting. In response, they wrote a “Letter to the Community” that said they would work to improve the supply of affordable housing; police transparency; and economic opportunity.

Many are concerned that taxpayer funding for a new soccer stadium doesn’t match those priorities.

At-large council member Claire Fallon, a Democrat, said Monday the city would be “crazy” to spend the money now.

Democrat Dimple Ajmera, who represents east Charlotte, said she’s a no vote at this point.

“I still have to understand how it will help economic mobility,” she said. “We have our priorities, and we have outlined those priorities in the community letter.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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