Politics & Government

Major League Soccer is nearly dead, but Memorial Stadium may be renovated for Independence

Before Marcus Smith tried to bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte, Mecklenburg County planned a small rebuild of Memorial Stadium for the minor-league Charlotte Independence. That plan could be coming back.
Before Marcus Smith tried to bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte, Mecklenburg County planned a small rebuild of Memorial Stadium for the minor-league Charlotte Independence. That plan could be coming back. Mecklenburg County

With Charlotte’s Major League Soccer plans shelved – for now – Mecklenburg County is returning to its original idea for Memorial Stadium: A modest renovation at the home of the Charlotte Independence, a minor-league team.

Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the smaller plan for the county-owned stadium Wednesday.

A year ago, the county and the Independence planned to spend $24 million rebuilding Memorial Stadium. The plan called for the county, city and the team to spend $8 million each on a small, 10,000-seat stadium that could be expanded if the city ever landed a MLS team.

But then Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports announced in January he was seeking a MLS team. He negotiated a tentative deal with the county to build a much larger and more expensive stadium costing $175 million.

That plan pushed the Independence aside.

But the MLS deal never came together. The city at first refused to participate. Then county commissioners became wary of the deal, and offered this summer to give the entire stadium site in Elizabeth to the city so they could take the lead in building an MLS stadium. The city refused.

The city and Smith’s team discussed looking for a new stadium site. Two weeks ago, at-large council member James Mitchell said the MLS deal was off. He hoped to try again next year.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett – who opposed the MLS deal – said he’s been talking with Jim McPhilliamy, president and managing partner of the Independence. He supports the smaller stadium renovation.

“When MLS essentially died when the city decided not to take Memorial Stadium from the county, the next day Jim called me and said, ‘Any chance we can get back in the game?’ ”

Puckett said the team and the county have a new, smaller plan. Instead of spending $24 million, the new stadium plan may be between $14 million and $16 million. Puckett said he thinks the City Council may be reluctant to spend $8 million.

“We’re brushing off the old plan,” Puckett said. “The financials are the same as before.”

He said the county will ask the city if it wants to use tourism tax dollars for the project.

“We will go back to the city and say, ‘We’d love for you to participate,’ ” he said.

But the makeup of the city is set to change significantly. By December, there will be a new mayor – either Democrat Vi Lyles or Republican Kenny Smith – and at least six new council members out of a board of 11 people.

Ron Kimble, an economic development consultant for the city, worked closely with the county on the failed MLS stadium plan.

He said he hasn’t spoken to council members yet about the new idea. If the city participates, it would likely use hotel/motel tax dollars that are restricted for tourism.

“Is the improvement at the minor-league level, a good way to go about a stair-step to the major league level,” Kimble said. “What should come first?”

McPhilliamy’s team currently plays at the Matthews Sportsplex and is a member of the United Soccer League. He said he doesn’t know what amenities would be lost if the county agrees to a $15 million rebuild, rather than a $24 million project.

Before Smith announced he was trying for a MLS team, McPhilliamy said he wanted to grow minor-league soccer with the hopes of eventually landing a MLS team. He said that’s still possible.

MLS said it plans to have one final round of expansion in 2017 and 2018 by adding four teams.

But McPhilliamy said he thinks MLS will change its mind. Charlotte could also land a team that’s relocating from another city, he said.

“It’s the wild wild west out there in soccer,” he said. “In my view, eventually MLS will re-open the door to expansion. If we do a good job in positioning the team then I think we can earn a seat back at the MLS table.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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