CHARLOTTE, NC (Caroline Metzler and Steve Harrison/Charlotte Observer) - Two days before a crucial vote on whether to fund a new soccer stadium, Mecklenburg County manager Dena Diorio told commissioners she's found a way to advance 13 park projects from a 2008 bond referendum that have yet to be funded.
Critics of the soccer plan, which the commissioners will consider Wednesday, questioned why the county would spend more than $100 million on a stadium while the park, greenway and recreation center projects have languished for nearly a decade.
Diorio's new plan, sent to commissioners in a Monday email, is an attempt to move both forward – by supplying money for the 2008 park projects and by reducing the county's commitment for the soccer stadium.
The county manager's capital budget had $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.
The plan has since changed. The $43.5 million payment for 2020 has been reduced to $30 million in Diorio's plan – the same amount that the city of Charlotte is considering spending on the stadium.
If commissioners approve that plan, the county would spend $101.25 million over the next two years on the stadium instead of $114.75 million.
"With the County's financial commitment to the proposed soccer stadium reduced there is additional capacity to fund park projects included in the 2008 Bond," Diorio told commissioners in the email Monday night.
Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports is leading Charlotte's effort to land one of four expansion teams for Major League Soccer. He wants to build a stadium in Elizabeth on the site of Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center. Twelve other cities are bidding.
Smith hasn't addressed whether he would cover the loss of roughly $27 million from the city and county combined. Earlier this month, at a rally for the prospective team, Smith said he couldn't say whether he would invest more money in the stadium if the city reduced its share.
In 2008, voters approved $250 million in bond money for parks, greenways and recreation centers across Mecklenburg County. To date, 38 of the 75 planned projects have been completed.
Besides cutting its share on the stadium, Diorio also said the county plans to sell parking lots near Fourth and Graham streets, which would generate about $6.5 million, according to the email.
An additional six parks projects would be fully funded in the capital plan through 2023 with $20.25 million. The county manager said she hopes design and planning can move forward on the remaining seven projects by using "surpluses" and "strict project controls."
The six additional fully funded projects in Diorio's plan include a new park in Mint Hill – which is identified as being within a "service gap area" of the county for parks. More than five miles of greenways, as well as improvements to Druid Hills Neighborhood Park, are also included in the plan with full funding by 2023.
The projects that would be scheduled for planning and design – but not construction – include improvements to Park Road Park shelter in south Charlotte and Colonel Francis Beatty Park on Weddington Road. There would also be improvements made to the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center near Wendover Road and the Mallard Creek Recreation Center.
County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said the proposal to shift money to the 2008 park bond projects indicates that the community is being heard.
He said property tax dollars should be used for parks and greenways, rather than the soccer stadium, due to their status as an affordable asset for the entire county.
"The community is pretty clear, and loud, and vocal, that they want the parks and not the MLS deal," Ridenhour said.
The county tentatively agreed to help pay for the stadium in January, only to watch Charlotte City Council reject the idea.
Earlier this summer, Mecklenburg commissioners gave the city an August deadline to also contribute to the stadium. That motivated council members to begin discussing the proposal.
After the city said it could only afford $30 million and not $43.5 million, the county decided to also reduce its commitment to the stadium.
Brian Cox, member of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission, said that despite the decrease in soccer stadium funding, money for parks in the county "pales in comparison" with what is being allocated to the Major League Soccer stadium.
"Parks are taking a backseat to subsidies for professional sports," he said.
Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, said in a statement that the department is looking forward to completing the park projects as soon as possible.