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Residents Mixed On MLS Plan At Mecklenburg County Hearing

Michael Tomsic
Residents tell county commissioners what they think of the plan to bring MLS to Charlotte.

Charlotte residents called the plan to attract a Major League Soccer team a tremendous business opportunity, a chance to build community pride and, on the other end of the spectrum, a bad pitch by a used-car salesman. More than 40 people lobbied county commissioners at their meeting Tuesday.

Caleb Wyckoff was excited and nervous.

“I haven’t written something this important since my wedding vows, and I almost threw up and cried that day,” he said as everyone started laughing. “Hopefully I don’t do that here.”

Wyckoff is involved in Charlotte’s soccer scene and encouraged commissioners to vote for the plan. It would essentially rebuild American Legion Memorial Stadium near uptown to try to win an MLS team. County leaders say the current stadium is rundown and rarely used.

Jesse Newsom checked it out.

“It looks old,” he said. “It’s been painted but not recently. The grass is kind of bare. The rock wall looks like it was once pretty but hasn’t been washed in a while.”

That wall is one of the historic touches that would be preserved in the reconstruction. Newsom says it would make the stadium valuable to the community again.

Other proponents pitched it in cultural terms, saying soccer attracts a fan base that’s younger and more diverse than other pro sports. A young veteran said it would revitalize an important memorial. (The stadium opened in 1936, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to town to dedicate it.)

The construction cost would be split between private investment and taxpayer money, with the city and county combining to spend about $88 million.

How quickly the plan is moving alarmed Chris Bakis.

“It sounds like when you’re at a used-car lot and some high-pressure used-car salesman is trying to push you into something,” he said.

The details just came out Friday, and the county and city would have to approve it by the end of the month to meet the MLS deadline to apply for an expansion team.

The head of the private ownership group behind this is Marcus Smith. He’s CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which runs Charlotte’s NASCAR racetrack and several others across the country.

He said the MLS didn’t invite his group to submit a bid until last month.

“And it was new to everybody,” he said, “so it’s not our timing. It was really timing that was offered up by the league.”

That didn’t reassure James Donahue, who called this “a squeeze play.”

“MLS knows what they’re doing,” he said. “This is a negotiation play on their part.”

Another opponent, Pepper Hair, said she’s a soccer fan, but this is not a smart use of taxpayer money.

“The working poor in this county will not benefit from this expenditure of funds,” she said.

Others said the money should go to schools or improving economic mobility.

County Manager Dena Diorio says the funding would come out of what’s basically the county’s building-and-infrastructure budget.

“The money that we’re using for this facility could not be used to fund additional teachers, teacher raises or other things that are included in our operating budget,” she said. “I want that to be clear.”

The city’s portion would come out of existing taxes on hotel rooms and car rentals.

Some county commissioners and city council members have already come out against the plan. Commissioners will vote on it Thursday.