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Mecklenburg County Commissioners vote 7-2 to spend $30 million on tennis complex

 Site plan for tennis facility
Beemok Capital
Mecklenburg County
The site plan for a planned tennis facility in west Charlotte

Mecklenburg County commissioners voted 7-2 Thursday to spend up to $30 million to help pay for a proposed $400 million tennis complex in the River District west of the airport.

Charleston-based Beemok Sports — which owns the rights to the prestigious Cincinnati-based Western & Southern Open tennis tournament — has proposed building a 14,000-seat tennis stadium and 40 courts on a 50-acre site.

The city of Charlotte has already approved $65 million worth of subsidies for the tennis facility. Beemok has said it wants about a third of the total $400 million cost to be covered by public sources, or about $133 million total. Mecklenburg County Deputy County Manager Leslie Johnson said the state has agreed to contribute $25 million, which would bring the total public investment to $120 million.

Commissioners were mostly enthusiastic about the tennis proposal, saying it would create jobs and new recreational opportunities. Beemok has said the courts would be available to low-income residents at a reduced cost.

"My number one goal is to improve the quality of life for regular people here in Mecklenburg County," said Commissioner Leigh Altman, who voted in favor of spending the $30 million. "I want them to have increased household incomes, I want their children to have access to great amenities."

Commission Chair George Dunlap said if Mecklenburg didn't try and land the tournament then another city would.

But there were some skeptics.

Commissioner Pat Cotham, who voted in favor of the project, asked whether people working there could use public transportation. There are no bus routes that currently serve what's now a mostly undeveloped part of Mecklenburg County.

The tennis complex would be located in the River District, which is being developed by Charlotte-based Crescent Communities on 1,400 acres of mostly wooded land west of Charlotte Douglas International. When complete, the River District will include thousands of homes and millions of square feet of office and retail space, making it the biggest planned development in Charlotte since Ballantyne.

Commissioner Elaine Powell, who voted no, said she was worried about the environmental impact to the Catawba River from things such as increased runoff from impervious surfaces.

And Commissioner Arthur Griffin, another no-vote, said $30 million was too much money — and for a purpose outside the county's primary mandate. He noted that the city's $65 million contribution was from a fund that can only be used for tourism projects. The county's money could be used for schools or social services.

"I’m a good steward of the taxpayer's fund," he said.

He added that the county's "core business" is social services, and pointed out health and educational disparities the commission is also seeking to address.

"This (subsidy) is not something that I can support," Griffin said.

Will the Western & Southern actually come?

One twist: Although Beemok has said it wants to bring the tennis tournament to Charlotte, the company has not committed to doing so. Beemok acknowledged as much in a written Q&A for county commissioners.

"There is no set termination date in Cincinnati. Beemok owns the sanction rights to the tournament, and Cincinnati has expressed their desire to maintain a long-term relationship with the event," Beemok officials wrote.

Ohio is trying hard to keep the Western & Southern Open. The state this week committed $22.5 million, Warren County, Ohio, is kicking in $10 million, and Mason, the city outside Cincinnati where the tournament is played, has pledged $15 million. Beemok officials have outlined their requests for upgrades at the tournament's current facility to Ohio officials.

One Ohio official told local media outlets that he considers the tournament's fate a "jump ball" situation.

The proposed 50-acre facility in west Charlotte would include:

  • Four stadiums.
  • A 14,000-seat center court facility.
  • More than 40 hard, clay and indoor tennis and pickleball courts.
  • 10,000 parking spaces.
  • A 45,000-square-foot building.
  • And "a world-class pickleball facility.

WFAE editor Ely Portillo contributed.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.