Supporters of funding parks and greenways rather than a new soccer stadium attend Wednesday’s meeting of the Mecklenburg County commissioners. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com
Supporters of funding parks and greenways rather than a new soccer stadium attend Wednesday’s meeting of the Mecklenburg County commissioners. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Politics & Government

County rejects soccer stadium deal, passes the cost – and Memorial Stadium – to city

By Steve Harrison and Katherine Peralta

sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

kperalta@charlotteobserver.com

August 02, 2017 9:57 PM

The effort to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte has been dealt a major blow.

After months of taking the lead on helping fund a new soccer stadium, Mecklenburg County commissioners Wednesday did a U-turn, voting 5-3 to limit their financial contribution to giving the city of Charlotte the Memorial Stadium site – and nothing else.

As part of the original deal, Mecklenburg County would have paid $71.25 million for the stadium next year and then another $30 million for fiscal year 2020. After that, the county would have collected lease payments of $4.25 million a year from the potential soccer team.

Now, the county is only providing the land for the proposed $175 million, 20,000-seat stadium. But the remaining balance – more than $100 million – would have to be covered by the ownership group, headed by race track executive Marcus Smith, or the city.

The ownership group, called MLS4CLT, could not be reached for comment following the county’s vote Wednesday night.

Republican Commissioner Jim Puckett proposed the deal that the commissioners ultimately supported. Puckett’s motion said the county would not provide any additional money to the project, other than deeding the stadium to the city. Additionally, it would fund 13 park and greenway projects from a 2008 bond.

“They manage stadiums and they have a division in the city that deals with pro sports teams,” Puckett said. “They have a dedicated tax revenue stream that’s for entertainment and can be used for pro sports. They have the expertise and funding stream to deal with that.”

Critics of the stadium proposal questioned whether the county should spend money on the stadium when the parks and greenways needed funding.

Elaine Powell, chair of the park and recreation commission, urged commissioners to fully fund parks. “We are behind, and parks and recreation is a community priority,” she said. “There is a citizen outcry.”

After some back and forth about what they were voting on, Republicans Puckett, Matthew Ridenhour and Bill James, in addition to Democrats Pat Cotham and Ella Scarbrough, voted to give the city the stadium site. Democrats Trevor Fuller, George Dunlap and Dumont Clarke voted no.

Immediately after the vote was taken, Fuller said Scarbrough, who voiced support earlier for using taxpayer money to fund facilities that benefit the community, was confused, and he proposed a second vote. Ridenhour said that a new vote would be “shameful.”

Commissioners voted again, and the vote was the same.

Before the vote, Dunlap said he wants the county to keep the stadium. He said he remembers events such as Shrine Bowls at the stadium and said he “would love for the community to return to that.”

Fuller agreed with Dunlap. He said it would be “absurd” to give the stadium to the city and an “abdication of the county’s responsibility.”

While the county’s money is coming from general tax dollars, which could be used for schools or parks, the city’s money comes from hotel/motel taxes that must be used for tourism.

If Major League Soccer selects Charlotte as an expansion market, MLS4CLT would demolish Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center in Elizabeth and replace them with a 20,000-seat stadium.

Before the debate started, county manager Dena Diorio said that prospective owner Smith has told her he would make additional investments to improve the area’s “soccer infrastructure.”

If Smith receives an MLS team, Diorio said the team would make improvements to several county parks to facilitate soccer, including Clanton Park and Revolution Park. Smith has also said the team would consider building a training facility at the former Eastland Mall site.

The original framework for the deal also called for the city to also contribute $43.5 million – although the city has recently said it can only contribute up to $30 million.

City Council’s economic development committee first discussed soccer last month and is scheduled to have a second meeting later this month.

MLS4CLT rally at First Ward Park

On Tuesday evening Charlotteans came together at First Ward Park to rally for Major League Soccer. Marcus Smith spoke to the enthusiastic crowd.

Jeff Siner The Charlotte Observer

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.