Why Charlotte's proposed amateur sports center is back to zero

A long-sought indoor amateur sports center for Charlotte may not be dead, but, at minimum, it’s in intensive care. This week the economic development committee accepted a recommendation by city administrators to decline all three proposals submitted by potential developers and investors to build a field house using a combination of private and public money — a move that eliminates any imminent prospects to expand the local lineup of sports venues.

The committee’s decision marks the latest setback for tourism executives, politicians and others in Charlotte who want to strengthen the city’s recruiting pitch for amateur sports championships and tournaments. 

According to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, a publicly funded agency that recruits conventions and other events, amateur sports accounted for 59% of its overall bookings in 2017, adding $133 million worth of visitors spending. Despite that success, rival cities in the Southeast, including Birmingham, Myrtle Beach and Atlanta, have invested much more heavily in indoor and outdoor sports complexes in an aggressive campaign to woo amateur sports events.

Three groups submitted bids for the proposed fieldhouse: Universal Sports, Eastland Community Development and Charlotte Flights. A combination of city government and visitors authority executives reviewed the proposals and determined none met the bid requirements. One obvious sticking point: None of the groups controlled property where a fieldhouse could be built. 

Universal Sports proposed a 176,000-square-foot facility plus an outdoor track, but didn’t disclose a construction cost or a city funding request. (The city has set aside as much as $15 million to help build an indoor sports center.) Eastland Community Development targeted a 13.4-acre site for an unspecified-size fieldhouse and an outdoor track with a price tag of $35.2 million. Of that amount, the city would have contributed $15 million, according to the bid.

Lastly, a group billing itself as Charlotte Flights touted a 430,000-square-foot, $40 million sports center, again with an outdoor track, and asked for $20 million — or 50% of the building cost — from the city.

Randy Harrington, the city’s chief financial officer, and Bill McMillan, senior director of sales at the visitors authority’s recruiting arm, told committee members this week that none of the bidders have experience building these types of projects.

Ed Driggs, a Republican councilman and vice chair of the committee, told Harrington, “I really appreciate the fact that you have just said no. In this case, I think no is a good answer.”

Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat, told council members earlier this month the criteria for a fieldhouse might need to be changed because of disappointing proposals submitted. Council Democrat and committee member LaWana Mayfield asked Monday whether private-sector projects and others steered by Mecklenburg County park and rec may have reduced or shifted what’s needed in Charlotte to attract more amateur sports events.

“I think we need to regroup on our strategy,” committee leader James Mitchell, a Democrat, told me Tuesday. “How do we go out in the market and regroup? We need to keep this on our agenda, but we need to close the loop on our (bid) process.”

For the past five years, the economic development committee has tried to help the visitors authority increase sports tourism by adding an indoor center suitable for staging basketball and volleyball tournaments as well as sports such as wrestling, karate and cheerleading competitions. 

Previously, city-owned land adjacent to Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium on Independence Boulevard was the preferred site for an indoor sports center. In 2013, Florida developer Good Sports reached an agreement with the city to build a 115,000-square-foot field house and a 150-room hotel, but couldn’t pay for the project even after the city allowed the developer to reduce its investment.

Later, the city adjusted its site preference, opening up the latest round of bids to almost any place other than Bojangles’-Ovens, which will likely need the adjacent space to make room for a light-rail line.

Hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses love amateur sports because the events tend to occur on weekends, supplementing weekday corporate travel. In addition, parents and other relatives who support young athletes tend to be intensely loyal, making such travel all but recession-proof.

Here and nationally, travel related to amateur sports, including the popular travel leagues that thrive on higher-level and more frequent competition for school-age children and teens, has become a $10.5 billion-a-year industry, according to figures compiled by the National Association of Sports Commissions.

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