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Mecklenburg commissioners OK $32M stadium upgrades package
Charlotte Independence would be primary tenant
 
Published Tuesday, March 20, 2018 11:00 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a $32 million capital project plan to renovate Memorial Stadium.

The 8-1 vote for the Park and Recreation project (Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour voted against) kicks off with $3 million in fiscal year 2018. Renovations will be fully funded by the county, but discussions are ongoing with the city of Charlotte and Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority to contribute $8 million toward the initial cost of the proposed synthetic turf field.

“I’m hoping we’ll do more with this stadium,” Commissioner George Dunlap said. “I haven’t been to a CIAA championship football game in a long time, and I’m hoping we can do something to attract them, since their headquarters are here as well. I’m looking forward to the renewed rivalry between Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone College being renewed at this stadium.”

Memorial’s primary tenant would the Charlotte Independence of the United Soccer League and Charlotte Hounds of Major League Lacrosse, both owned by Jim McPhilliamy. While the Hounds currently play at Memorial, the Independence would move there in March 2021. McPhilliamy has been pushing for stadium renovations to get the Independence into Memorial since launching the club in 2014. They currently play at the county-owned Sportsplex in Matthews, which would become their practice facility once Memorial is refurbished.

“We’ve moved our whole office over to Elizabeth Avenue,” McPhilliamy said. “We’re part of the community over there. Matthews is our home for the next three years, and we’re going to keep training down in Matthews.”

Ideally, the Independence would remain a tenant for 20 years, but the initial deal includes a 10-year lease, with options to renew for an additional five years starting in 2021. The team would be guaranteed 25 dates at Memorial and up to 30 events, but cannot exceed 17 weekends between March and October. Their lease would begin at $185,000 annually (a 3 percent annual cost escalation), and would pay $8,800 per game. The county would receive 15 percent of revenue from parking, net concessions, naming rights and permanent advertising as well as a $3 per ticket package.

The Independence initially began working with the county on a deal in 2016, which called for $24 million split evenly between the county, city and the team.

Dan DiMicco, retired CEO of Nucor, a Charlotte metro area resident and former trade advisor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, increased his investment in the Independence in January. Multiple commissioners noted that DiMicco’s role encouraged them to pursue renovating Memorial, with the team as their ideal tenant.

The county’s experience with last year’s Major League Soccer expansion team bid left commissioners leery of what County Manager Dena Diorio described as “negotiating away our rights” to what she called “our asset.” Their updated deal does not allow the county to book a competing soccer team for the stadium.

“The county cannot terminate lease for convenience to bring in Major League Soccer without tenant approval,” assistant county manager Mark Foster said.

The plan calls for spending $8 million more on Memorial, but as Foster pointed out, it’s a one-time investment rather than necessitating improvements every few years. One area is reflected in the choice of playing surface. Natural grass would be cheaper by approximately 25 percent. However, it would need to be replaced every five years versus replacing artificial turf every 10 years, which the county would pay for by setting aside money in the capital reserve fund.

“As a soccer purist, you don’t want play on turf,” McPhilliamy said. “This is a county asset for the citizens of the county. We’re a tenant there, just like anybody else. I understand why they need the turf. We’ll keep an eye out for new solutions. They haven’t figured out the hybrid in North America yet, I don’t think, but it’s been successful in Europe. We’ll keep an eye on new technology that allows it to be as good as possible.”

Said Ridenhour: “I really like the idea of synthetic. I understand that there are more concerns about safety—injury I should say, but if folks don’t want a synthetic surface field, then they can build their own stadium, and put natural grass in.”

The deal to renovate the 82-year-old stadium also includes $5.6 million to upgrade Independence Park. That addresses the concerns of residents that tax dollars should be used for greenspace.

“We are going to need every dime of that $32 [million],” said Commissioner Dumont Clarke, whose district includes Elizabeth. “We have a real responsibility. This is probably one of the most neglected assets that the county owns. It’s long past time.”

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