City cancels soccer meeting and pulls out of deal; bid could still move forward

Moments after Mecklenburg commissioners approved spending $43.75 million on a new soccer stadium, the city of Charlotte announced Thursday morning that it is canceling a public hearing and vote scheduled Friday – signaling they aren’t ready to subsidize a new stadium.

Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports could still move forward with his expansion bid, which is due to Major League Soccer by Jan. 31. But he won’t have $43.75 million in city funds, and he would have to make up the difference himself. The proposed budget for the stadium is $175 million.

Mike Burch, chief strategy officer of SMI, said in an e-mail it’s “TBD” whether the bid will move forward.

Support among City Council for the deal was shaky this week.

There were four council members who said they were likely to vote against, and they weren’t a surprise: Democrats Patsy Kinsey and Claire Fallon, and Republicans Kenny Smith and Ed Driggs.

But when Democrats Julie Eiselt and Al Austin said they were against it, the deal essentially collapsed. The city announced the meeting was canceled during its budget retreat in Raleigh.

“It's been so rushed,” said Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat. “People feel there are still a lot of unanswered questions. It doesn't mean we don't ever want to do soccer. It’s not responsible to the taxpayers when we don’t have all the answers to their questions.”

Eiselt, an at-large member, said council members “just don’t have the ability right now to thoroughly vet this.”

Vi Lyles, the mayor pro tem, said Marcus Smith “has to make some decisions about his investment and interest.” She said Smith can either go forward now without the city or wait two years for another expected expansion.

Democrat James Mitchell, an at-large member, had been the only council member vocally supporting the proposal.

The city’s $43.75 million would have come from its hotel/motel occupancy tax, which has to be spent on tourism purposes. The county’s $43.75 million would come from its general fund, which can be used for things such as social services.

While the city would have been spending tourism dollars, council members were very hesitant to move forward. They are up for reelection in the fall, and they have been continually assailed by Charlotte Uprising protesters over the city’s reaction to the Keith Scott shooting in September.

They have been focusing on building affordable housing and creating new jobs. Subsidizing a new stadium with a week of debate and consideration would likely have brought an avalanche of criticism.

For the bid to move forward, the county’s approval Thursday was critical. The county owns the land for the stadium as well as the stadium itself.

Marcus Smith and his father Bruton Smith could cover the city’s $43.75 million and hope that council members reimburse them for all or part of that commitment with a vote in a month or two.

By Steve Harrison and Jim Morrill
Charlotte Observer

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