By Katherine Peralta and Steve Harrison
Four months after Marcus Smith submitted a bid for a Major League Soccer expansion team, there aren’t many signs of progress in the motorsports CEO’s effort to bring a new sports franchise to Charlotte.
The league hasn’t yet scheduled a visit to the city. And Charlotte city council members haven’t shown much interest in revisiting a proposal to help fund a proposed stadium.
Earlier this year, Charlotte City Council decided not to consider spending $43.75 million to help fund the proposed MLS facility on the site of Memorial Stadium. The Smith family says support from the city is necessary to bring MLS to Charlotte, but the two sides don’t seem to have made much headway on reaching a funding deal, and the clock is ticking.
In fact, sources familiar with the proposal say the two sides have not had any formal discussions about the deal since January.
The MLS is in the midst of reviewing bids from 12 cities before announcing the two new expansion teams by the end of 2017. Experts say a lack of support from the city of Charlotte could weigh on the MLS’s decision about Charlotte.
“Charlotte has a very good chance if the partnership with the government comes together, and far less of a shot if it doesn’t,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant.
Smith, who is CEO of Concord-based race track operator Speedway Motorsports, has said he sees an MLS team as a “natural extension” of his family’s sports entertainment business.
Smith said he’s received a “tremendous amount of support” from the community and from prospective corporate sponsors on the MLS proposal.
“If Charlotte chose not to support the effort, it would be the only major sporting team or event in town that the city doesn’t support,” Smith, who leads the company started by his father, Bruton, told the Observer. “That would send a big message to the MLS, and I don’t think the MLS would choose Charlotte if the city is not willing to support it.”
Smith also said he’s received “a lot of interest from outside investor parties.” Asked whether he would consider expanding the ownership group, Smith said: “I won’t rule anything out.”
Visit not finalized
The league itself has not shared much about where its review process stands. The MLS Board of Governors met in mid-April, and expansion was one of the “many topics discussed at the meeting,” said Dan Courtemanche, the league’s spokesman.
The MLS executive team visited Phoenix this month, and has also visited San Diego and St. Louis. “We have not finalized a date for an expansion visit to Charlotte yet,” Courtemanche said in an email.
The other cities that submitted bids include Raleigh, Detroit, Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville, San Antonio and Sacramento, Calif., which is considered a favorite.
Bids include proposed public-private funding for stadiums, as well as completely privately funded facilities, which is what Raleigh’s would be. One major snag hit by a bidding city was in St. Louis, where voters rejected a proposal to pay $60 million for the stadium this spring.
In Charlotte, Mecklenburg County commissioners were on board with the county’s funding portion despite the city’s hesitation.
Earlier this year, commissioners approved a plan to raze the county-owned Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center to make way for a new 20,000-seat MLS stadium. The county agreed to spend $43.75 million on the $175 million project, and the Smiths will spend $12.5 million. Also as part of the plan, the Smiths will repay a loan to the county $4.25 million a year for 25 years.
When they opted against voting for the stadium funding, City Council members said they needed more time to consider the proposal. The city’s portion would come from the hotel/motel occupancy tax, which has to be spent on tourism purposes, but some have said the city should be prioritizing other initiatives, like affordable housing and job creation.
“We’re having clarification discussions with different groups now to try to make sure everybody understands the opportunity,” said Smith.
Coincil members told the Observer this past week, however, they haven’t talked about the proposed stadium funding since their retreat in January, and they have not been approached by the Smiths with additional details on the project.
“To my knowledge, the council is not considering professional soccer right now. It’s not on our radar,” City Council member Julie Eiselt said.
Charlotte’s mayoral candidates have said while they support bringing MLS to Charlotte, they aren’t in favor of the city shelling out over $40 million for a new stadium.
“It goes to the heart and the soul of a city when we can fund soccer stadiums for billionaires but can’t find the wherewithal to build a grocery store in a food desert,” said state Sen. Joel Ford, a Democrat.
City Council member Vi Lyles, another Democrat running for mayor, said she did not support Smith’s stadium proposal as it was presented earlier this year.
“Around Charlotte right now, every effort we undertake must go through the light (of) building our economy, building opportunities for folks, creating good paying jobs and decent places to live,” Lyles said.
Republican City Council member Kenny Smith said he hasn’t spoken to the Smiths since early this year, and has not been presented with any alternative proposals on the stadium funding.
“I think that the stadium, the deal that was in front of us … it’s hard to see what the value to the city is,” Smith said.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat who is running for reelection, said when city leaders were asked to consider the stadium funding this year, they did not have time to consider how the site was selected, and didn’t have a chance to gauge the community’s sentiment sufficiently.
“The structure of the deal is not something I was willing to support,” Roberts said. “I think there is room for more conversation. (But) I think $40 million from the city is too high.”
Roberts also noted that Charlotte’s minor league soccer team, the Charlotte Independence, had also worked on a plan to renovate Memorial Stadium but has not been involved in MLS discussions. The team’s president, Jim McPhilliamy, said this year he felt “run over” by Smith’s bid.
“It wasn’t clear to me or other council members what would happen to Charlotte Independence. They’ve done some investment, and they kind of felt left out of the conversation,” Roberts said.
This story originally appeared on CharlotteObserver.com.
Photo: Jason E. Miczek