Charlotte must approach amateur sports complex idea with caution

The projected financial numbers for this amateur sports complex the city of Charlotte wants to build off Independence Boulevard sure do look good.

Sarasota, Fla.-based Goodsports, the company negotiating with the city on the project, says the planned fieldhouse and hotel can bring net operating income of $3.7 million in its first year of operation. That climbs to $4.6 million annually by year five.

Sign me up, right?

Not so fast, some City Council members are saying.

If $3 million-plus in annual net income is within reach, why was Goodsports the only private developer to answer the city’s request for proposals?

Goodsports says the concept will work. Traveling youth sports is a growing $7.1 billion market. Any parent who regularly ferries soccer- or basketball-playing offspring to out-of-town games can testify to the drain on their wallets.

But City Council members are worried they’ll wind up with another NASCAR Hall of Fame situation – a public-private partnership that test drives like a Ferrari off the lot, but plods like a Pinto once all the contracts have been signed.

Actually, a better reference point might be last year’s fruitless negotiations over developer Bert Hesse’s plan to turn the old Eastland Mall property into a mixed-use movie studio complex.

City Council went round and round with Hesse’s group, which was among the few to step forward with a plan the city thought viable for the property.

Hesse’s plan looked great on paper. But the more the city pressed for financing details, the more he stalled. Trust me, it’ll be great, he kept saying. City officials wisely let that deal die.

Goodsports said it would produce a firm financing plan in time for a council subcommittee meeting last week, but now says it will do so next month. Goodsports complexes in other cities have struggled to get off the ground – some because of financing problems.

Danger, City Council. Danger.

It’s understandable that the city wants to help revitalize the east side. But that shouldn’t mean flinging money at pipe dreams and hoping for the best. If private investors aren’t stepping up to help underwrite Goodsports’ project, perhaps public investors – city taxpayers – shouldn’t either.

Then again, maybe the firm’s plan is every bit as solid as it says. Maybe the concept is just too far ahead of the curve for most other private developers to see the potential.

But we’re talking about spending $25 million in public dollars on the sports complex, plus $16 million to renovate Bojangles Coliseum – all up front. (Goodsports would spend $39.7 million on the complex).

If City Council members can’t get enough answers to lay the money questions to rest next month, they should let Goodsports go the way of Bert Hesse.

As we saw with the disappointment caused by the collapse of the Eastland Mall deal, that’s not easy. But there’s no shame in walking away from a risky deal.