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Charlotte may be putting in a bid for an MLS expansion team. What does that mean for the Independence?

Uptown Charlotte
Erick Hodge / www.sirhodge.com

Back in mid-December, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was on a teleconference call with media talking about expansion. He gave a list of ten cities the league was working with and announced that bids for at least the next two spots in the league would be due by January 31, 2017 - just six weeks later.

This week, in Charlotte, NC, several public forums are or have been taking place, allowing citizens to speak on the topic of a MLS stadium in Charlotte as part of a bid for an expansion team. Government officials will also vote this week on the proposal in order to meet that January 31 deadline.

Breaking down the bid

Marcus Smith, Owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc.
Blaine Ohigashi/Getty Images North America
  • Who: The bid is being publicly led by Marcus Smith, President of Speedway Motorsports Incorporated. SMI owns several racetracks used by NASCAR and other events and was founded by Marcus’ father, Brutus. SMI is headquartered in Concord, NC, a Charlotte suburb and home of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Brutus Smith is believed to be a part of the ownership group and has appeared on Forbes’ listing of American billionaires as recently as 2006.
  • Where: American Legion Memorial Stadium, originally built in the mid-1930s as a Works Progress Administration project, is located just outside Uptown Charlotte. It’s an uncovered horseshoe stadium that currently seats 17,000, but has only one regular tenant - a professional lacrosse team. The field is currently too narrow to play professional soccer on and due to deteriorating infrastructure, most believe that its easier to tear down the current stadium and build a new one on its land. It becomes more complicated in that the stadium is considered a historical landmark and is one of the few “old” buildings in a city that seems to not have much history still standing.
American Legion Memorial Stadium
  • What: Smith has offered this proposal to the county and city: Smith is willing to pay for half of the $175 million it will take to construct the new stadium. He’s asking Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte to pay 25% each to cover the rest. The proposal also includes the county financing $75 million of Smith’s $87.5 million share over a 25-year lease. The cities 25% would come from tourism taxes levied on hotels and therefore, for the most part, taxing out-of-town guests. The county’s 25%, on the other hand, would come from their capital fund, which is funded by property taxes on Mecklenburg residents.

But why?

Once we get out of the black and white facts of the deal and enter into the “why” (namely “why should we agree to pay for a privately owned business?”), I start to lose confidence. On one hand, I strongly believe that Charlotte is a great city, would support a MLS team with fervor, and add a needed franchise to the league’s map in the southeast. Memorial Stadium is the perfect location for such a franchise and I think a new 20,000-seat venue could be a real jewel in the city’s crown and an asset that both the city and county could get use out of.

On the other hand, I hate the idea of using public funds to pay for something won’t be in the county’s control. While the county would technically own the stadium, the team would control all revenue streams, naming rights, scheduling, etc. It would check all of the boxes that MLS has said they wanted in their soccer specific stadiums, but it would come at a fairly large cost to taxpayers.

I’ve been asked several times over the past week on what side of this issue I come down on and the truth is depends on the hour you ask me. Because there are moments where my fandom is shining bright and I just want a MLS team in my city that I can call my own. Ask me again an hour later and I might tell you that government shouldn’t be in the business of using tax dollars to fund a billionaire’s playground.

How could this affect the Charlotte Independence?

As a side note, Rapids fans are probably familiar with Charlotte Independence, the USL team that the Rapids have affiliated with going into their third season. Independence has also discussed a potential MLS bid throughout their three-year existence. They currently aren’t in discussions with Smith or local government to play a role in a MLS team; it seems like Smith has swooped and stolen their thunder. County Manager Dena Diorio emphasized the city’s commitment to Independence and that whatever happens this week that they aren’t choosing one over the other.

As someone who has been following Independence since their inception however, I know that MLS has been their goal from day one. Without that potential, either in a failed bid this year or a successful bid by another ownership group, I don’t know if Independence will continue to exist with its current owners. It’s possible that the team is sold to another local ownership group or it could in fact be sold to the Smith’s and operated as MLS Charlotte’s affiliate if it came to that. But that’s a long way down the road, and after losing two million dollars total over the past two season, I don’t know how much longer Independence can continue to hemorrhage without bleeding out.

What’s next?

Over the next few days government officials will continue to deliberate. The county commissioner’s will vote on the proposal Thursday night. Assuming that the county votes to approve the deal, the city will hold a public forum on Friday afternoon to hear citizens opinions on the stadium deal and then they’ll vote later that night on the proposal. If both parties agree, Smith’s bid will be sent to New York in time to meet the January 31 deadline.

UPDATE: What the heck happened with the MLS stadium proposal yesterday?