The city of Charlotte has said it doesn’t have enough money to finish the Cross Charlotte Trail – a 26-mile continuous bike and pedestrian trail from one of the county to the other.
But the city does have tens of millions of hospitality tax dollars available if it were to consider the trail a tourism project. That would finish the trail, but also jeopardize money set aside for Bank of America Stadium and the Spectrum Center.
For five years, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have been connecting existing greenways and trails to create a continuous 26-mile trail for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The city had projected the trail to cost $38 million. But that is only enough money to link 18 miles of trails and greenways, mostly in south Charlotte and around uptown.
That would leave 10.4 miles unbuilt, mostly in northeast Charlotte. That would cost $77 million to finish.
"What we have learned about trail building is that trails are like roads, and roads can be costly and complicated. And not every section is the same," Director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation Liz Babson said.
She said the city will create 18 miles of linked greenways and trails, and then make improvements to existing roads to finish the rest.
Some council members are furious with CDOT for not having better planning.
But Council Member Braxton Winston said he wants the city to use hotel/motel occupancy taxes dedicated for tourism to finish the trail. He said there's no reason the city can’t market the trail to outsiders.
"We should view it as a catalyst for visitors from outside of our region to come here and take part in an attraction that is unique to Charlotte," Winston said.
During Monday's meeting, Babson said she didn't know if the city could use tourism dollars for the project.
Tourism taxes on hotel rooms and prepared food and beverages in Mecklenburg County generate $91 million a year.
By state law, the city’s hospitality taxes are restricted for tourism-related activities.
Some of that money has specific purposes, like the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Convention Center. And the city has prioritized spending some of those millions on maintaining the city-owned Spectrum Center and renovating Bank of America Stadium.
But the city does have some flexibility with some of that money for general tourism projects.
Winston said the taxes are not a “Panthers or Hornets tax, this is a tourism tax. And we should look at all ways that we can support tourism in a broad manner.”
But would the Cross Charlotte Trail be a tourism project?
It would mostly be used by locals. But that’s true for other buildings that receive tourism funds, like Ovens Auditorium.
But in New York City, for instance, the TimeOut Guide lists the city's top 10 attractions. Its top attraction is the Empire State Building. Its third-best attraction is Central Park, and its eighth-best attraction is the High Line – a new elevated park/greenway on an abandoned rail line.
“I think [the trail] could be a draw and something that could put Charlotte on the map," said Shannon Binns of Sustain Charlotte, a group that supports finishing the trail. “We do lack tourist amenities. We are not on many tourist top-10 lists. I think there is a growing demand – not just among residents – but among people who travel [and] who are looking for things like this to do.”
The city has set aside $70 million for a second round of renovations to Bank of America Stadium and that money will be available in 2023. That’s almost enough money to finish the trail.
Those millions come from a pot of money reserved for the convention center, the stadium and amateur sports. Winston says the city could, in theory, use the trail to hold a marathon and other biking and running races — and classify it is an amateur sports venue.
Historically, the City Council offers little input in how tourism dollars are spent. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and the city tell council members how they want to spend the money, and council members almost always agree.
Five years ago, the city wanted to raise the 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages to pay for improvements to Bank of America Stadium and for amateur sports.
But the city's convention center fund had more than enough money to pay for stadium renovations, and the General Assembly told the city it would not give it permission for a higher tax. Legislators did vote to allow convention center funds to be used for a stadium larger than 65,000 seats and for amateur sports.