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County Commission Votes To Fund Parks, Not MLS Stadium

Supporters of more funding for parks and greenways waved signs at Wednesday's county commission meeting.
David Boraks
Supporters of more funding for parks and greenways waved signs at Wednesday's county commission meeting.

In a big blow to Charlotte's bid for a Major League Soccer team, the Mecklenburg County Commission voted 5-3 Wednesday night not to help fund a new stadium near uptown. Instead, under a motion put forward by stadium opponents, they voted to fund long-delayed parks projects, and to offer the county-owned Memorial Stadium to the city of Charlotte. 

The vote reversed the commission's January vote endorsing a plan to rebuild Memorial Stadium, near uptown. Since then, some commissioners have complained that the city council hasn't yet decided whether to join the project. And they've faced months of lobbying by citizens who fear the stadium would take away funding from park and greenway projects that voters approved in a 2008 bond referendum.

Commissioner Jim Puckett says the county should stay out of the deal, and give the stadium to the city. "They have both the expertise and a funding stream to deal with that," Puckett said. 

Expertise in publicly-funded sports projects and access to tourism tax revenues that can only be used for projects like a stadium, Puckett said.

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said publicly-funded stadiums are a bad deal, and he's hearing that from citizens.

"There's just not that fever around this deal. But what we do hear is the excitement over building out our, fulfilling our 2008 promises to build those parks and greenways," Ridenhour said.

In the audience, a couple of dozen parks supporters waved signs. They got what they came for: With the vote, commissioners approved spending $49 million to finish more than a dozen Parks & Recreation bond projects.

That's about $20 million more than what County Manager Dena Diorio proposed spending in a plan that would have funded both parks and the stadium.  That didn’t even come up for a vote last night.

Other yes votes came from commissioners Pat Cotham, Bill James and chair Ella Scarborough. Her vote was the most surprising: Back in January, she supported spending 44 million to help build the stadium. And just before the vote, she spoke favorably about bringing an MLS team to Charlotte. When she raised her hand to support Puckett's motion, commissioners Trevor Fuller and George Dunlap questioned her:

"I thought you said you were opposed to it," Fuller said.

"And you just voted the opposite way," Dunlap added.

Scarborough said: "No no no, I'm not opposed to it, because it does include soccer."

"No, it doesn't … this motion does not include soccer," Fuller said.

"It says we limit," said Dunlap. 

Scarborough asked to have the motion read again and appealed to the county attorney for help understanding it. When the commission re-took the vote, she voted yes again. The motion passed 5 to 3, effectively killing county participation in the MLS deal.  

The spotlight now shifts to the City Council, where the economic development committee has been considering the stadium deal. Committee chair James Mitchell is a supporter, but said last night  

"Not having the county to put in their financial commitment I think is a deal breaker. … I think for us it was about two government bodies working together to do something special, to bring a professional franchise," Mitchell said.

He said he'll ask the city manager to put the county's offer of Memorial Stadium on the council's Aug. 28 agenda, but he'll vote no.  He said he thinks the city should "go back to square one" and explore other options for stadium sites, including on city-owned land. But that may delay the process too long for Charlotte's bid, he said. 

Charlotte is among a dozen cities vying for two MLS expansion franchises to be awarded later this year. The league is requiring bidders to show plans for a dedicated soccer stadium in or near downtown.

The Charlotte bid is led by Bruton and Marcus Smith, the family behind NASCAR track operator Speedway Motor Sports of Concord. They've pledged to pay the league's $150 million franchise fee, plus half the cost of a $175 million stadium. Marcus Smith told WFAE last month his group could work with a smaller figure for stadium funding.