Amateur sports plan for Charlotte could get booted in stadium debate

Amateur sports plan for Charlotte could get booted in stadium debate


by STEVE HARRISON / The Charlotte Observer

Posted on March 4, 2013 at 6:54 AM

Updated Monday, Mar 4 at 2:52 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As Charlotte lobbies the General Assembly to increase the prepared food and beverage tax for the Carolina Panthers, the city has said some of the $1 billion in new revenue could be used to improve amateur sports facilities.

City officials say amateur sports can be lucrative for hotels and restaurants, but Charlotte has offered scant details as to what it would do. The city has given legislators a one-page list of seven ideas, such as building a 15-field baseball complex or a “premier tournament quality” tennis complex.

The city has released no estimates of how much the facilities would cost and where the facilities would be built. It also hasn’t said how much of the $1 billion would be spent on amateur sports facilities.

In February, State. Rep. Charles Jeter, a Cornelius Republican, said the amateur sports plans were “nebulous.”

It’s possible the entire plan for amateur sports could be scuttled.

A bill introduced in the General Assembly Thursday wouldn’t allow the city to increase the meals tax from 1 to 2 percent. Instead, the bill would allow the city to use money currently dedicated for the Convention Center to be used for renovations at Bank of America Stadium, as well as amateur sports.

That convention center fund has enough money to borrow $110 million – nearly enough for the Panthers – but with no money left over for amateur sports.

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble said the current bill wouldn’t allow the city to do what it originally intended: Renovate Bank of America Stadium, build amateur sports facilities and also save money for a second phase of stadium renovations in 2027 or possibly an entirely new stadium.

Charlotte City Council member John Autry has voted for the proposed tax increase in closed session. When asked by the Observer whether the city should have given more details about its amateur sports plans, Autry said he didn’t know if it would have helped convince the General Assembly.

“Why should you go to that point if you don’t know where you will land,” Autry said. “What kind of scrutiny does that draw? This thing is moving in all kinds of directions.”

The City Council is scheduled to meet in closed session Monday night. It’s possible it will discuss the recent bill that would allow the city to only use Convention Center dollars for the Panthers. City officials might vote to suggest a smaller tax hike.

Beneficial to city

The Charlotte Convention Center is the focus of the city’s efforts to fill hotel rooms and spark economic development. But amateur sports arguably provide as much economic impact – at a fraction of the cost.

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority has spent more than $30 million annually on the Charlotte convention center and bringing conventions to city. By contrast, it spends less than $2 million promoting the city for amateur sports, or for subsidies to bring events to the city.

The CRVA said that amateur sports – such as cheerleading competitions and swim meets – account for 53 percent of all hotel room nights it booked last fiscal year. That’s a greater share than the convention center.

And while the convention center concentrates business in uptown, amateur sports fill hotel rooms throughout the region.

The city’s one-page list has seven ideas, or concepts, to improve amateur sports.

One of the ideas – a soccer sports complex – is already under construction in Matthews, by Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation.

The city has proposed renovating Bojangles Coliseum so it could be used for multiple basketball and volleyball games at one time. The city would raise the floor of the building. That would reduce the seating capacity, but would increase the floor space. The city has said that project would cost $60 million. The original plan would be for a private developer to pay for half of the cost.

After those two ideas, the other five concepts are extremely vague.

•  The city has proposed building separate softball and baseball complexes, each with 15 fields and “championship-caliber seating.”

•  Building a “premier aquatics center.” That would either be a new building or renovating the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center uptown.

•  Building a “premier tournament quality” tennis complex for major amateur, pro and senior tennis tournaments.

•  Improving Memorial Stadium and Grady Cole Center, on the edge of uptown.

Kimble told the Observer the list was generated by the city, Mecklenburg County, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and the Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, a lobbying group.

It’s unclear how much the entire list would cost. “The next steps in the process are to develop prioritization, time frames and cost estimates for such facilities,” Kimble said. “That is where we stand currently.”

Locals first

Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation director Jim Garges said he would be interested in partnering with the city for some of the projects. But some ideas on the list would be difficult to justify.

He said his priority is building facilities that locals use first.

“We build facilities for people who live here,” Garges said. “That’s an important piece for people to understand. If they can be used for sports tourism, that’s wonderful.”

He said some of the city’s proposals are already close to being met.

The county is partnering with Queens University to build tennis courts near Marion Diehl Park on Tyvola Road. In addition, the county is building four new baseball fields in Ballantyne in a partnership with the YMCA.

As for a new aquatics center, Garges said that might have to be funded entirely by the city.

“Having two tanks might be great for competitive meets, but that doesn’t help the people up north who don’t have anything,” he said. “Someone has to bring money to the table.”