Jenkins-Peer is on the Team looking at ways to improve Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium

Memorial redevelopment on the agenda
by Erik Spanberg, Charlotte Business Journal

Kick this idea around: Are city and county leaders ready to provide a big assist for a $20 million renovation of Memorial Stadium? Expect to hear that debate heat up in the next few months.

The discussion, anticipated since the minor league Charlotte Independence debuted last year in a temporary home at Ramblewood Soccer Complex, is considered vital if boosters are serious about pursuing a Major League Soccer franchise within the next five years. City and county politicians and administrators have expressed interest, but have yet to discuss specific proposals or possible taxpayer contributions.

Jim McPhilliamy, Independence managing partner, told me this week the team has been looking at stadium possibilities and studying the issue. He said the team will defer to city and county leaders about whether and how a collaboration could work.

Deputy city manager Ron Kimble, tourism executive Tom Murray and Charlotte Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith among them — to push for exhibition matches at Bank of America Stadium and to discuss soccer as a magnet for millennials and international business connections. Last summer, a pair of exhibitions featuring international teams brought more than 50,000 fans to the NFL stadium twice in a 10-day span.

“If we can make an investment in Memorial Stadium and show the MLS that we can support soccer, our track record in sports is good,” James Mitchell, a Democrat who leads the City Council economic development committee, told me. “I think there is political will to get this done. So you can check that box off. The question is whether there is enough sponsorship support at a major league level to go with the Hornets, the Panthers and NASCAR.”

The NFL Panthers are the strongest, healthiest sports property in the region. After a decade of struggle, the NBA Hornets have rebounded and become a consistently profitable business. Charlotte Motor Speedway and the annual PGA Tour stop at Quail Hollow are also stable, reliable attractions.

Mitchell told me council members will likely at least mention the idea of exploring soccer — and Memorial Stadium — during their annual retreat in Winston-Salem. The retreat starts Wednesday and ends Friday.

Mecklenburg County owns Memorial Stadium, an 80-year-old building that needs extensive repairs even to serve as home of a minor league team, never mind an MLS franchise. Even so, its history and proximity to uptown could make for an appealing MLS home, McPhilliamy and other boosters have said.

Local firm Jenkins-Peer Architects has presented the team with a renovation plan that would take 16 months, make the field soccer-ready and put capacity at 10,000. The blueprint calls for using the makeover as a base that could be expanded to 20,000 seats if and when an MLS team arrives. Jenkins-Peer designed Jerry Richardson Stadium for the Charlotte 49ers, a 15,000-seat venue that can be expanded to 40,000 seats.

McPhilliamy views Sacramento and San Antonio as top competitors for MLS. The league has 20 teams and commitments to add four more during the next few years. Last year, the MLS disclosed plans to push the franchise count to 28 — though how soon has yet to be determined. Previously, the MLS had set 2020 as a target date for going to 24 clubs.

Atlanta’s expansion team will join in 2017 and a second Los Angeles franchise begins play the following year. Minnesota and Miami are poised to become the 23rd and 24th franchises soon after that.

“I think Charlotte’s a viable MLS market,” Sal Galatioto, president of a New York sports-finance firm, told me. Galatioto helped Bob Johnson in his successful bid for the NBA expansion team that became the Charlotte Bobcats and later helped Johnson sell majority interest to current owner Michael Jordan. (Jordan changed the name to Hornets from Bobcats in 2014.)

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said, “The success of soccer in Charlotte at the youth and college level serves as yet another strong indicator of the continued growth of the sport in the United States. Last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup crowd of more than 55,000 also illustrated the passionate support for soccer in the area. Independence owner Jim McPhilliamy provides us with regular updates regarding the progress of professional soccer in Charlotte, and we understand the city and the county are very supportive of his vision for a soccer-specific stadium that could be the home for a Major League Soccer expansion team someday.”

An expansion team will likely cost $100 million or more and McPhilliamy has said he will need deep-pockets investors to pay for an expansion franchise.

For now, the best-case scenario is for McPhilliamy and city and county government to begin formal talks and figure out how to pay for the stadium renovations. The Independence face at least two more seasons at Ramblewood, where another local design firm, Odell Associates, is helping expand the temporary facility opened last season.

The Independence starts the 2016 season March 26 at home against Louisville.

Erik Spanberg covers government, sports business, hospitality and airlines for the Charlot