Back in November 2002, Charlotte City Council members had plenty of reasons to say no as they debated the $265 million plan to build today’s Time Warner Cable Arena.
They had 57,545, to be exact. That’s how many residents had voted against the arena idea in a nonbinding referendum about 17 months earlier. George Shinn had just moved his Charlotte Hornets team to New Orleans in an ugly breakup with the city, and voters were sour on the NBA.
Nevertheless, city leaders pushed ahead, insisting that a new arena and team in uptown Charlotte would be an economic development slam dunk.
As Time Warner Cable Arena celebrates its 10th anniversary, city leaders look prescient. New hotels, restaurants and nightlife have sprouted all around the arena, lured by the nearly 1,600 events and 13.5 million visitors who’ve helped make it one of the area’s most popular tourist draws during the past decade.
The arena helped Charlotte land the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which injected an estimated $91 million in direct spending into the local economy and gave Charlotte an international public relations windfall of incalculable value.
It helped the city land the CIAA basketball tournament, which brings 100,000 visitors and $30 million annually in direct spending. It drew the Rolling Stones and U2, and brought Michael Jordan and his Bobcats-turned-Hornets to uptown.
The presence of the arena, which the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority says exceeded its financial goals in the 2014 budget year, undoubtedly helps explain why Mecklenburg hotels are having arguably their best year ever – even though convention business is down.
A University of South Carolina study conducted in 2012 and 2013 estimated the arena’s total economic impact at $263 million annually. The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s struggles have taught us that rosy projections don’t always come true in the tourism sector.
Still, it seems we have clear evidence the arena is justifying the huge risk the City Council took in building it.
None of this is to say there haven’t been real and substantial costs. Back in 2002, city officials estimated the total price tag would be $430 million, once you factor in paying off the debt needed to finance it. The city last year committed to spending $33.5 million more for improvements, and this year agreed to spend $2.75 million in tourism funds to help stage the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.
We’re also not saying that city officials, so desperate in 2002 to return the NBA to Charlotte, couldn’t have cut a better deal or handled voters’ concerns more sensitively.
But if you could go back to 2002 and tell voters all that has happened with and around the arena, how many would still say, “Don’t build it”?
Our guess is it wouldn’t be anywhere near 57,545.