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City Council Approves $108 Million For Arena And Streetcar

Davie Hinshaw
Charlotte Observer

The Charlotte City Council approved more than $108 million in new spending Monday night. The money will go to two controversial projects, renovating Time Warner Cable Arena and an extension to the city’s east-west streetcar line.

It was never in doubt the city would be shelling out for renovations to Time Warner Cable Arena. The city owns the 19,000 seat stadium. And the lease signed with the then Charlotte Bobcats nine years ago contains a clause that the venue be kept one of the most modern in the NBA. That left some council members feeling trapped by what they saw as a fait accompli. "I’m not thrilled with it but it is a contractual obligation," said council member Claire Fallon, "And if we break a contract who will believe our word anymore. So I have to vote for it."

The now Charlotte Hornets, along with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, had asked for nearly $50 million in improvements but the city negotiated that down to $33.5 million for things like renovated bathrooms, new restaurants and concession stands, adding seats to the arena floor and a new scoreboard. 

Council member Ed Driggs questioned why any money should be used to subsidize a for profit company that gets what he already sees as a sweetheart deal from the city. "The city pays virtually all the capital costs of the arena and receives no revenue from it." Driggs added no rent was paid, no shared concession revenue, no proceeds from non-basketball events, "what kind of a partnership is this?"

Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Barnes disagreed that the NBA team is getting a free ride."I believe they’ve put in about $8.5 million a year that has been used to maintain the facility. So they’re not there for free."

Council Member Al Austin compared the city owned stadium to any house that’s aged…albeit a very big house. "You’ve got to make repairs, you’ve got to keep it up. Particularly when you’re generating dollars from it."

Austin then said the arena generated $263 million in economic activity last year. And said over 2,500 jobs were a direct or indirect product of the building. "That’s why I’m going to support it," said Austin, "I think we need to call for the vote."

And the vote was 9 to 2. Only Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith, the council’s two Republicans had their hands up to vote nay. 

The council then moved on to the second project, a 2.5 mile expansion of the CityLinx streetcar Gold Line. The official vote last night was to allow city staff to apply for a $75 million federal grant that would cover half the streetcar’s $150 million price tag.

But the debate was over the streetcar line itself.

Council member Vi Lyles felt if the city was going to pay for the renovating Time Warner, a new mass transit line was a no brainer. After all, the arena was home to an NBA team, the roads were used by everyone, everyday. Ed Driggs, who said he felt like Dr. No last night, doubted claims the street car system would make commuting any easier. "I think a train that runs on the street and displaces vehicle traffic does not contribute in the same way an independent rail line does."

Last week city staff announced the price of the streetcar expansion had jumped by $24 million before the first new track was laid. Michael Barns said he was worried the city did not have a dedicated source of funding for the project. "My main fear from the very beginning has been that this project would become a permanent part of the city’s general fund budget." Barnes added it looks bad when the city says no to paying for many projects but somehow finds the money for others after "we just raised taxes. "

The streetcar expansion passed in a vote of 7-4.

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.