CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Efforts to bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte took a step forward and then immediately skidded to a near-stop Thursday.
Mecklenburg County Commissioners narrowly approved a resolution Thursday morning signing off on county involvement in the plan, but moment later, city officials said Charlotte City Council would not vote on the matter Friday as initially planned.
City leaders monitored the county’s vote on the proposal from Raleigh. The vote would turn out to mean little in the minds of city council members, who had already decided they weren’t interested in the proposal.
“We are interested in soccer,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts said. “The city wants to be a good partner, but we can't make a major multi-million dollar decision with the scant information we have in the limited amount of time we have been given.”
The future of the county action, and efforts to bring MLS to Charlotte in general, was not immediately clear Thursday.
The proposal considered is for a $175 million stadium. Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte would contribute about $44 million each.
The plan calls for demolishing Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center and replacing the properties with a state-of-the-art MLS stadium. The team, spearheaded by Marcus Smith, would be responsible for operational costs, but the county would finance and lead construction of the project.
While county officials gave the go-ahead Thursday some were unsure about how the city's action impacted their resolution, according to emails obtained by Channel 9.
An email, sent by Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour to fellow commissioners and a county attorney, outlines why he believed the city's lack of involvement nullified the county resolution. Ridenhour voted against the resolution.
"For the county to continue to pursue this project at Memorial Stadium, I believe we need a new resolution and funding structure, void of City participation, to be voted on at a future date," Ridenhour wrote.
Commissioner Jim Puckett, who also voted against the resolution, posed another question.
"If the Smiths say they will pony up the city share are we still on the hook?" he wrote.
Marcus Smith, general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, is spearheading the effort. A representative for Smith said he wasn't available for comment Thursday.
"Any next steps regarding MLS are still to be determined," said Scott Cooper, vice president of communications for Speedway Motorsports.
County Commissioner George Dunlap, who voted for the resolution, said there could be other options for the plan to move forward without city involvement.
"Bruton Smith might decide that he wants to have a bigger investment," Dunlap said.
Councilmember James Mitchell was the only member of City Council in favor of the MLS proposal. He is hoping for an extension from MLS to allow the city more time to review the proposal.
“I've always said from the very beginning, Major League Soccer is a definite plus for the city of Charlotte,” he said. “We need to educate our community this money is from tourism dollars only. If you rented a car, or paid for a hotel, you are paying for this new soccer stadium. It is not, as people say, taxpayer dollars.”
Councilmember Patsy Kinsey, who represents Elizabeth, where the stadium would be built, hopes the proposal is done.
“I don't approve of the location in addition to the other things,” Kinsey said. “I am hoping at least right now it is dead.”
The city of Charlotte had originally planned to hold a public forum on Friday but immediately after the county vote, released the following statement:
"We are canceling the City Council Friday 4 p.m. meeting scheduled to discuss the MLS deal. Over the past several days, we have been discussing this opportunity, and while this is very promising, it is clear that we are not prepared to move forward at this time on the current soccer proposal.
"The Council is interested in a future opportunity to pursue Major League Soccer with more information and time to allow for interactive dialogue with the community and appropriate due diligence on our part.
"Any major decision we make needs to be considered as part of the bigger picture as we serve our entire community. Continued partnerships with sports positively impacts many of the initiatives we are working on, and we need to be diligent in planning a future where everyone wins. We very much look forward to continued discussions."
Earlier in the week, Channel 9 discovered that the deed for the land where Memorial Stadium sits was gifted to the city in 1904 with the caveat that it must be used as a public park.
The stadium is being considered for a major league soccer stadium and according to the deed was to be used as a public park.
"I think the people of Charlotte need to know that part of a gift to them is being possibly taken away,” Charlotte attorney Ken Davies said. “I think that the people who gave this land to the people of Charlotte would be turning over in their graves if they knew the city and the county were considering doing this.”
Davies sent a letter to the county attorney, not as a lawyer, but as a concerned citizen.
The county attorney said he was aware of Davies concerns and that they would be shared with board members at an “appropriate time.”
Davies said he didn’t know if the deed is legally enough to stop the project.
County Commissioner Pat Cotham said residents told her about the deed, and so did county staff.
“It didn't come out like it was a huge deal,” she said.
She's more worried about what the stadium would cost, and how it could impact other projects, such as school bonds.
“I am more worried about those things than I'm worried about deed restrictions,” she said.
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