City should take easy two on arena

There are three kinds of spending taxpayers could provide for the Charlotte Hornets basketball team and their home, Time Warner Cable Arena. Call them the layup, the free throw and the half-court desperation heave. The City Council should take the two easier shots but leave the tricky stuff for a seasoned professional like Michael Jordan.

The Hornets and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority say the 9-year-old arena needs almost $48 million in upgrades. Monday night, city staff recommended that the council agree to cover $27.5 million over the next five years, plus a few million more in the five years after that. The Hornets would put in $2.4 million over the next five years.

Should that be a slam dunk? Back to the three shots:

The layup: When you buy a house, you need to spend money on upkeep to prevent it from falling apart or becoming the blight of the neighborhood. The same is true of arenas. When the city (and the Rolling Stones) opened the arena in 2005, it knew that general wear and tear would require continual, and sometimes expensive, maintenance. Some of the $27.5 million falls in this category.

The free throw: In 2003, the city entered into a contract that requires it to make certain improvements to the arena over time. Those include upgrades required by NBA standards, and ones that have been provided at more than half of all NBA arenas. Some of these enhancements may be more palatable to the average taxpayer than others, but the city is contractually obligated to provide them.

The half-court heave: When you are maintaining your home, Viking appliances in the kitchen are a want, not a need. Some of those – new Zamboni, anyone? – have already been trimmed from the original request. Others may still be nestled in the city’s spreadsheets.

The City Council needs to flyspeck those spreadsheets to excise the “wants.” Council members also need to verify that at least half of other NBA arenas have indeed made the precise upgrade that the Hornets say is required for them. And they must ensure that the dollar figures the city proposes for any required improvement are as low as feasible. For instance, why spend $7.7 million on a new scoreboard just three years after the team upgraded its current one to, among other things, allow it to become high-definition?

A couple of other items raise eyebrows right away.

The city proposes spending $2.1 million to refurbish the arena’s 50 public restrooms. That’s a lot of hand dryers. Those bathrooms appear adequate to us.

City staffers also say the NBA requires taxpayers to spend $1.4 million to swap the locations of the ticket office and the team store and add 1,000 square feet to the store. The team store currently stands alone on the street level and is nearly invisible to fans inside the arena. It would make more sense – and pump up sales – to have the store on the arena’s main level and the box office on the street. But that was a mistake the team should have avoided when the arena was built.

We cringe at the thought of spending millions on an arena when our city has so many needs. Even so, some sizable chunk of this $27.5 million is required by contract. For everything else, put the ball in MJ’s hands.