Major League Soccer officials to visit Charlotte next week

Major League Soccer officials to visit Charlotte next week

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Steve Harrison and Katherine Peralta/Charlotte Observer) - As Major League Soccer officials consider whether to award Charlotte an expansion team, league President Mark Abbott is scheduled to visit the city next week. He's expected to meet with Mecklenburg County commissioners, who will vote in August on whether to spend more than $110 million in up-front money for a new soccer-specific stadium in Elizabeth.

Charlotte is one of 12 cities vying for four new franchises. MLS officials have already visited some cities, including Nashville last week.

Mecklenburg manager Dena Diorio told commissioners in an e-mail Monday that Abbott will be in town on July 18 "for a series of events." Abbott, she said, is hoping to meet with commissioners that morning.

It's unclear whether the county plans for the meeting to be public. If the meeting is held behind closed doors, a majority of commissioners could not meet with Abbott simultaneously under the state's open meetings laws.

"We are working on finalizing details on our next trip," MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told the Observer, although he declined to say whether Charlotte is next up.

Over the last year, the MLS has also visited Phoenix, San Diego, St. Louis, Detroit, Sacramento, Cincinnati and San Antonio. Along with Charlotte, the other bidding cities the MLS has not yet visited include Indianapolis, Raleigh/Durham and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

After last week's Nashville visit, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Nashville is "pretty high on the list" of bidding cities, The Tennessean reported. He lauded the city's ability to secure financing for a soccer-specific stadium and made clear that the MLS would not approve a city without a stadium plan in place.

The MLS visit to Charlotte, however, comes as funding for the proposed 20,000-seat stadium in Elizabeth remains in question.

Diorio's proposed capital budget included $71.25 million for the stadium next year, and then another $43.5 million for fiscal year 2020. After that, the county would begin collecting lease payments of $4.25 million a year from the potential soccer team. The total cost of the stadium, which would be built on the site of Memorial Stadium near uptown, has been estimated to be $175 million.

Commissioners postponed a vote on funding the stadium until August. Some also want Charlotte City Council to agree to help fund the stadium before they commit.

The council's economic development committee is scheduled to discuss funding the stadium this month. The city recently said it could spend up to $30 million on the stadium – down from the $43.5 million that city staff members said in January they could afford.

The county's plan would demolish Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center. In their place, the county would build a new state-of-the-art soccer stadium.

The county would own the stadium, but the MLS ownership group – led by Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports – would manage and control the facility.

MLS has said it plans to award at least two new franchises this year. It's possible the soccer league could award all four franchises in 2017, or the league could wait until 2018 or 2019 to finish expanding.

The Charlotte Knights released the following statement Tuesday to WBTV:

"It's always a compliment when Charlotte is noticed as a potential Major League Baseball city, however we still contend, as does the Major League Baseball Commissioner, Rob Manfred, that this is years away. We are thrilled that our team has led the country in Minor League Baseball attendance for three straight years, and intend on continuing that tradition for many years to come."