A drawing of what a new Charlotte soccer stadium would look like, on the site of the current Memorial Stadium.
Major League Soccer officials will be in Charlotte and Raleigh this week as they try to decide where to put two expansion teams later this year. A dozen cities are competing for new franchises. WFAE’s David Boraks has been covering the two North Carolina bids and talked with “Morning Edition” host Marshall Terry.
TERRY – David, why are MLS executives coming to town?
BORAKS – MLS President Mark Abbott and other executives have been visiting all 12 cities that submitted bids by a deadline in January. Abbott is the league’s business guy, and he’s be trying to get a feel for what Major League Soccer would look like here. The sport is in the middle of an expansion from the current 22 teams eventually to 28.
They’ll be in Charlotte Tuesday, and Raleigh on Wednesday, and they’ve got some pretty high standards for new teams. They want modern, state-of-the-art stadiums and signs that Charlotte is a soccer town.
Mike Burch, the chief strategy officer for the local bid – called MLS4CLT, says they’ll meet local government and business leaders and tour a local soccer academy.
Mike Burch of Speedway Motor Sports talked to reporters in Januar about the local MLS bid.
BURCH – And then maybe the most important part is … to let them see the support from the fan base itself. We have a public rally scheduled at 5 o’clock down at First Ward Park.
TERRY – And remind us, who’s behind the Charlotte bid and what they’re proposing?
BORAKS – It’s an ownership group led by Bruton and Marcus Smith – the people behind NASCAR track owner Speedway Motorsports in Concord. NASCAR is a sport that’s not growing like it once did. Marcus Smith is a big soccer fan and sees a lot of potential in bringing the sport here.
Charlotte is the 22nd largest media market in the U.S. and has a big soccer community, with lots of youth and adult soccer clubs. In recent years, fans have packed Bank of America Stadium for international matches. And the list of big corporations here offers lots of sponsorship possibilities.
Burch works for the Smiths. He thinks the stadium plan is the group’s biggest advantage. The plan is to tear down the existing Memorial Stadium near uptown and replace it with a stadium built specifically for soccer – something the MLS is requiring for new teams.
BURCH – You walk down there and you see the Charlotte skyline, and you’re right there and you have the streetcar, and at Central Piedmont Community College on the site itself, there’s significant parking. You see access to Elizabeth Avenue and the opportunities for development there.
TERRY – The stadium has been controversial, though, right, because they’ve asked for public money?
BORAKS – That’s right, Marshall. It’s expected to cost about $175 million. The Smiths and MLS4CLT would put in half of that – some of it in the form of a loan from the county. They’re asking the city and the county to put a quarter each – about $44 million.
The county commission voted in January to support the idea, though several commissioners have spoken out against the plan. They’ve put off a final vote until at least August 2.
The city council hasn’t taken any votes yet, and support has been lukewarm at best. At one point, mayor Jennifer Roberts said she didn’t see the council supporting “this structure and deal.”
But it’s finally coming up next week at the council’s Economic Development Committee. The city would use money from tourism-related taxes – money that can’t be used for things like streets, sidewalks or police. I talked to city council member and committee chair James Mitchell. And he told me that if the council decides to join the project, it won’t be at the full $44 million. He says the city can afford no more than $30 million. And he says the council has a long list of questions – mainly about jobs and other economic impacts.
MITCHELL – It has to be more than just a soccer stadium. So we want to see the community impact. We always talk about the community benefits. What is the work force development goal, and what is our minority participation goal to get some contracts?
So city officials will meet with the MLS group Tuesday. Mitchell says his committee will probably take two meetings to discuss it – next week and in August. That means it wouldn’t have a public hearing until late August, with a vote in September, at the earliest. It’s not clear how that fits with the MLS timeline. They’ve said they hope to pick two new cities by the end of the year.
TERRY – So what are the chances for these two bids then? I mean is it possible both Charlotte and Raleigh could wind up getting in?
BORAKS – It’s going to come down to – does the stadium plan meet the MLS’s requirements – a dedicated soccer stadium in or near a downtown with state of the art facilities. Is the financing in place, and is the market big enough to support a team?
And then there’s geography. It’s unlikely the MLS will pick two teams from North Carolina, I think. And given the state of stadium plans we know about so far, both seem to be a longshot for the next two franchises to be awarded by the end of the year.
But that may not be the end of it: I’d expect both groups to keep their bids alive for the next two expansion teams, to be awarded later.
Promotional video created by the MLS4CLT group, YouTube.com