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City's Bid For Major League Soccer Moving Fast - Some Say Too Fast

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble outlined a stadium proposal that could help lure Major League Soccer to Charlotte.
David Boraks
Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble outlines a stadium proposal for the city council that could help lure Major League Soccer to Charlotte.

Updated 1:47 p.m.
A proposal to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte is moving quickly toward a Jan. 31 deadline set by the league. Both the Mecklenburg County Commission and the Charlotte City Council could vote on a stadium plan this week. But some officials think that's too fast.

So far, discussions have mostly happened behind closed doors.  On Monday night, the City Council got its first formal look at the plan, which includes a new $175 million on the site of the Depression-era Memorial Stadium.

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble told the council the time frame is tight, and the competition tough.   

“We don't know geographically how they're going to allocate any prospective franchise allocations, but we're convinced that they want to locate one in the Southeast, which makes our competition pretty stiff with those that are on this list,” Kimble said.

Ten markets around the country were invited to bid for one of two new franchises, including Raleigh/Durham, Nashville and Tampa/St. Petersburg in the Southeast. Others are Cincinnati, Detroit, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio and San Diego.

Bids are due Jan. 31. Before then, a stadium deal has to be worked out between the city, county and an ownership group led by Marcus Smith, CEO of race track operator Speedway Motor Sports.

Kimble admits that's a "tough time frame." But he says a major league soccer team would bring economic benefits, from a billion dollars in visitor spending over 25 years to nearly 600 new jobs. He based those figures on numbers provided by Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

The city's share of the stadium cost would come from hotel and rental car taxes. He says it wouldn’t take money away from other projects.

“There is sufficient funding to do all the things that we have currently planned out of this bucket of funding, which is restricted,” he said.

The city and the county would pay for roughly half the stadium, about $44 million each.  The ownership group would pay the other $88 million toward the stadium (on top of a $150 million franchise fee to the league).

The stadium would be owned by the county, but controlled by the team – the same arrangement the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets have with the city-owned basketball arena.

Council member Patsy Kinsey doesn't support the plan, and thinks it's all moving too fast.

“We haven't talked about it as a council. Citizens don't know what's going on. We've had something in the newspaper, and I guess on TV, too. And we've had no chance to have a public hearing, and it's just been rushed through,” she said after Monday’s meeting.

Others on the council shared Kinsey's concern, including Mayor Jennifer Roberts:

“This is the first time we've publicly heard the proposal, and you know it's a very unfortunate timeline, because it is very rushed,” Roberts said during Monday night’s meeting. “And I think that was something the MLS put upon us. All the other cities have the same restrictions and challenges that we have.”

Apart from questions by Kinsey and council member Kenny Smith, there was no public discussion of the plan Monday night.

But on Tuesday, council member Julie Eiselt also raised questions. Speaking on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, Eiselt said she thinks Charlotte is “ready” for an MLS team, but this isn’t the right plan.

“I don’t feel that we’ve had time to properly vet this proposal,” Eiselt said. “I think that it’s too much of an investment from the public sector, as it stands. And I don’t believe – we have been told that – that because of the deadline which was imposed on everybody, we just don’t have time to negotiate that. So as it stands, I can’t – I can’t support it.”

The county commission must approve the stadium plan first, since it owns the stadium site. At least two Republican commissioners – Jim Puckett and Matthew Ridenhour - oppose the deal. Puckett said in an email to fellow commissioners Monday it benefits a wealthy family with little or no public economic benefit.

“It doesn’t offer opportunity for competing ideas, alternatives or participants and does so at a head-spinning pace,” Puckett wrote.

Puckett wants county officials to look at doing a minimal renovation at the aging Memorial Stadium. County manager Dena Diorio provide him with an estimate of $10.4 million to bring it up to “minimum standards” – a level the MLS might not approve.

The county commission has scheduled a public hearing Tuesday afternoon at 3 at the Government Center.  Commissioners plan to vote on the plan Thursday, at the start of their budget retreat.

If it's a yes, the plan would go to the city council, which could vote Friday, after council members returns from a retreat in Raleigh.   The council has scheduled a 4 p.m. Friday meeting in the council chamber, which will include time for public comments - something requested by Mayor Roberts. A vote could follow, according to the meeting notice

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.