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Stadium hearing draws appeals for MLS in Charlotte, derision of spending public money

Updated: Jan. 24, 2017 at 7:55 PM EST
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(David T. Foster III | The Charlotte Observer)
(David T. Foster III | The Charlotte Observer)
(David T. Foster III | The Charlotte Observer)
(David T. Foster III | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - A billionaire sports family, a historic if crumbling stadium, social inequity and the global passion for soccer collided Tuesday as Mecklenburg County commissioners held a hearing on the proposal for a $175 million soccer stadium.

With commissioners poised to vote Thursday on the county's part of the deal – $43.75 million and financing worth another $75 million – more than 40 speakers lined up to advise them.

Of the first three dozen people who signed up to speak, 24 favored the proposal and 12 opposed it. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts has called for the city to have its own public forum leading up to a possible city council vote on Friday.

Supporters, who included civic officials and soccer players and fans, argued that the Major League Soccer expansion team pursued by speedway magnate Bruton Smith and his son Marcus offered what could be the city's sole chance to join a global community devoted to the "beautiful game."

Major league soccer could spur development near the stadium and help attract young talent to jobs in Charlotte, they said.

Jesse Newsom said his recent tour of Memorial Stadium, which would be torn down, found peeling paint and sagging goalposts.

"There has never been any one idea that brought people together on what to do about it," he said. "Now we have a plan, a concrete proposal, from serious people who can get things done."

Detractors said the fast-track approach to seeking local government commitments left many questions with too little time to answer them. Some evoked memories of football games in the 1930s stadium that a MSL stadium would replace.

"I've bought TVs with more consideration than this," said speaker James Donahue. He called Major League Soccer's requirement for a decision by Jan. 31 "a negotiation play ... We don't need to play this game, not right now."

The county-owned Memorial Stadium would be demolished to make way for the new stadium. Built in the 1930s, Memorial is little-used but is historically significant for the stone wall that encircles its playing field and for its vintage ticket booths.

Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte would together pay half the stadium's $175 million cost, or $87.5 million. The county would also finance $75 million of the team's half of construction costs and be reimbursed over the term of the 25-year agreement.

The proposal by the Smiths seeks more public money than deals for Major League Soccer stadiums in some other cities, the Observer has reported.

Marcus Smith told commissioners that soccer is growing rapidly nationally and that there is large participation in youth soccer in Charlotte. Referring to other sports venues built in the city in recent years, he said, "Charlotte has a fantastic history in investing in things that improve the quality of life."

Smith said at a news conference last week that investors haven't commissioned a study of fan interest in Charlotte.

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimates the stadium would produce $41.5 million in new visitor spending each year. Over 25 years, new spending would be more than $1 billion.

Officials have predicted the stadium near uptown could also spark $500 million to $700 million in nearby development. County manager Dena Diorio said Major League Soccer doesn't foreclose the involvement of Charlotte Independence minor league soccer team.

Last month the CRVA and the Independence put on hold a $24 million plan to remake Memorial Stadium.

Other speakers ridiculed claims that hosting a MLS team could help Charlotte overcome its racial divide, highlighted by protests after a police shooting in September. "We think landing an MLS franchise is nothing short of the the defining accomplishment of our generation," Charlotte City Center Partners CEO Michael Smith said last week.

"Really? Is this statement an accurate reflection of the thinking behind this project?" speaker Pepper Hair said Tuesday, adding that wealthy developers have too much influence in the city. "If so, the income inequality that so plagues us will only get worse."

Added Chris Bakis: "It sounds like a used-car salesman trying to push you into something."

The wealthy Smith family, which would get county financing for stadium construction, came in for their share of criticism.

Jessica Miller said the county has more pressing financial needs, including maintenance on old schools and smaller classes in West Charlotte.

"What I don't have a place in may heart for is welfare for billionaires," she said. "We have many community needs that are urgently needed, but a soccer stadium isn't one of them."

But the Elizabeth neighborhood that surrounds Memorial Stadium appears to support a change. A survey over the weekend found that 66 percent of residents who responded support the MSL stadium and 23 percent oppose it, said Paul Shipley of the Elizabeth Community Association.

"I would ask you to think about it as an investment," said speaker Sean Gautam. "We're not talking about five years or 10 years, you're talking about 25 and 30 years from now. It's not just about the stadium but about economic opportunity."

THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER STAFF WRITER STEVE HARRISON CONTRIBUTED.