Politics & Government

Charlotte’s pro soccer hopes could be dead – unless Marcus Smith invests millions more

County commission spars on MLS vote

Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports may need to invest million more into a Major League Soccer bid if he wants to keep the Charlotte proposal alive.
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Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports may need to invest million more into a Major League Soccer bid if he wants to keep the Charlotte proposal alive.

How badly does Marcus Smith want a Major League Soccer team?

He faces that question after Mecklenburg commissioners’ stunning vote Wednesday night, when they blew up a tentative agreement with the race track executive to build a $175 million stadium in Elizabeth.

After about an hour of debate, Smith saw $101.5 million in public money being considered for the stadium vanish.

Smith lost $30 million that the county would have spent directly on the stadium under the county manager’s plan. He also lost $71.5 million in upfront money the county was considering for next year, which Smith would have paid back over 25 years.

Smith, the chief executive of Speedway Motorsports, would still get some public support.

Commissioners voted to give Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center to the city, and they’d like the city to take the lead on the project. That land is appraised at $12.9 million, and could be worth more. Republican Commissioner Bill James said he believes the land could sell for $30 million.

And the City Council could still allocate $30 million toward the project, though that’s far from certain.

MLS4CLT, the ownership group that Smith heads, said late Thursday it’s “not giving up on bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte.”

“To win an expansion team, we need a strong public-private partnership that works for all sides now and in the future,” the group said. “We want to work together with local leaders to seize this unique opportunity that will benefit our community for decades to come. We will keep working hard to make this happen as long as there is engagement on the public side.”

stadium rendering
A conceptual rendering of the stadium that has been proposed to lure a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte. Speedway Motorsports

Surprised by the vote

The city, it appears, was stunned by the vote.

“Honestly we were just as surprised as anyone else,” said at-large council member Julie Eiselt.

She said she’s willing to listen to the new proposal, but said she doesn’t know if the city wants Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center.

“It’s like your great uncle is dying and leaves you the great family house and it’s falling apart and has back taxes,” she said. “We didn’t want to spend $30 million before. Why would we pay $30 million now?”

Charlotte city administrators hunkered down Thursday in meetings to determine the impact of the county vote. Ron Kimble, who works for City Manager Marcus Jones and who has been a point person on soccer, declined to be interviewed.

The city’s communications office said City Council members are reviewing their options.

The Charlotte City Attorney, Bob Hagemann, emailed County Attorney Marvin Bethune for clarification on what happened.

“Council member James Mitchell has asked me to seek clarification on the Board’s actions last night,” Hagemann wrote. “By conveying Memorial Stadium to the City, was the Board indicating that it is unwilling to also consider providing financial support for MLS?”

Bethune told him there was no other county support, other than the land.

Republican mayoral candidate and council member Kenny Smith said he doesn’t think the city should accept the stadium and he will be “hard pressed” to find a deal that works.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, said in an interview with the Observer that the city should focus on affordable housing but “keep all options open.”

Democratic mayoral candidate Joel Ford said if the city can’t build affordable housing, it shouldn’t consider funding a soccer stadium.

The city could quickly write a new contract that makes it the primary partner with Smith in building the stadium. Kimble, who works for the city on economic development issues, helped write the tentative agreement with the county and Smith. Kimble has been doing similar public-private partnerships for the city for years, and he could easily reconfigure the deal to make the city the owner.

The city already has a similar agreement with the Charlotte Hornets to manage the Spectrum Center. The city owns the building and the team manages it.

It’s unclear if council members are interested in taking on the decrepit stadium.

But even before the county scrapped its tentative deal, council members were deeply divided over whether to spend $30 million on the stadium.

A vote – if there is one – could be delayed until after the November election.

Four expansion teams

Major League Soccer has said it will expand by four teams in the near future. Charlotte is one of 12 cities that have submitted bids for the expansion teams.

But MLS has been vague about a timeline. The league has said it wants to award at least two of the expansion teams this year, but has not been clear about when it will award the other two franchises. That could happen in 2018 or beyond.

Wednesday’s vote was a reversal after a majority of commissioners had supported soccer for much of the year.

Democrat Dumont Clarke, who supported the soccer plan in January, proposed that the county fully fund delayed park projects from a 2008 bond; that the county only spend money on the stadium if the city agreed to spend $30 million; and that County Manager Dena Diorio begin negotiating with the city about taking over the stadium.

But the Republicans went one step further.

Commissioner Jim Puckett proposed that the county fully fund the park projects from the 2008 bond. He also said the county should deed the stadium to the city and spend no other money on the project.

Puckett’s motion was supported by fellow Republicans Bill James and Matthew Ridenhour and Democrat Pat Cotham. But when Democrat Ella Scarborough joined them, she surprised the audience and her colleagues.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller, a Democrat who supports subsidizing soccer, urged his colleagues to vote against Puckett’s plan.

“We can do both things (build a stadium and fund parks and greenways),” he said. “We don’t have to choose.”

He said “there is nothing about (Puckett’s) motion that is courageous. They know full well the city doesn’t want the responsibility for Memorial Stadium.”

Puckett said the city should take the lead on the stadium, since the city controls hotel/motel taxes that are dedicated for sports and tourism projects. Those taxes have funded projects like the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and improvements to the Spectrum Center.

The county’s stadium money would have come from its general fund, which could be used for anything, including parks, greenways and schools.

When the first vote was read, Fuller and fellow Democrat George Dunlap were surprised that Scarborough voted with the Republicans and Cotham.

Fuller asked her why she voted with them. Dunlap was also stunned.

“You just voted the opposite way,” he said.

Fuller told her that a vote with Puckett meant “you are essentially voting against MLS.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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