Does Mecklenburg County really need to choose either soccer or greenways?

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The bid to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte is running into a passionate but nonintuitive adversary: advocates for public parks and greenways.

Why? In a rare clear-cut example of local government tradeoffs, Mecklenburg County has essentially given its elected officials a choice between the two.

Commissioners have approved capital plans for the upcoming six years that save room for a future deal to fund a MLS stadium while nearly shutting the door on park and greenway projects that have been promised for a decade. They have only a few weeks to make changes or to head inextricably down one path or the other.

It’s a complicated story and one that is linked to why Charlotte is consistently ranked near the bottom in national rankings of park facilities.

Bring me up to speed really fast.

Marcus Smith, the president of Speedway Motorsports and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, is spearheading a bid to land a Major League Soccer franchise for Charlotte.

The team would need a new stadium, and a proposal would tear down Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth and build one with the help of taxpayer money from both the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The county has already voted once to put up its part of the money. The city has been more reluctant.

Read this if you need more to catch up.

What in the world do parks have to do with it?

Memorial Stadium is a county-owned facility and run by the parks and recreation department. So when the county is looking at how to pay for its part in building a new MLS stadium it’s all coming out of the parks department budget (which is paid for by property taxes).

Instead of recommending a property tax increase to pay for the $110 million or so in total the county would pony up for the stadium, County Manager Dena Diorio is recommending trims elsewhere in the parks budget.

County Manager Dena Diorio

What’s on the chopping block?

This is the part that makes parks and greenway advocates upset. The projects that are getting crossed off the list to make way for potential stadium funding are ones that were voted on and approved as part of a 2008 bond referendum.

Before your eyes glaze over, this is actually pretty interesting. Here’s the backstory.

Back in 2008, the county put together a $250 million plan for parks projects over the next seven years. The plan went on the ballot as part of a bond referendum and was easily approved.

Then the bottom fell out of the economy and Mecklenburg County put all of its capital projects on hold. As the financial situation improved, the county started funding some of the projects piecemeal — a little every year.

This next big capital plan, covering 2018-2023, was originally expected to get the rest of them taken care of.

If you’re a public finance nerd and are wondering why the county doesn’t just issue the bonds that were authorized to pay for it — the county has decided not to use bonds to fund parks anymore. They pay for the projects as they go.

Which projects are we talking about getting left out?

There are 12 remaining projects, worth $49 million, approved in 2008 that still haven’t been funded.

Half of them are greenway projects that would add more than 10 miles to the county system — on Mallard Creek, Briar Creek, McIntyre Creek, Irwin Creek and Sugar Creek.

There would be two new parks, at Ezell Farms in Mint Hill and Eastfield Park in Huntersville.

The remaining projects are improvements to existing parks and recreation centers: Druid Hills, Naomi Drennen Rec Center, Colonal Francis Beatty Park, Mallard Creek Rec Center and Park Road Park.

It’s a clear choice here? I keep hearing about two different pots of money.

That refers to the money the city of Charlotte is considering putting up. They have access to money raised by a special tourism tax on hotel rooms that would be used to help fund the new MLS stadium.

The county’s portion is all from property tax money.

What happens now?

The county has decided to push off a final decision on soccer or parks until August. Meanwhile, the city council is still kicking around the idea of putting up some money for the stadium.

Smith is trying to rally public support for the bid. Next week, a top executive of MLS will be in town and Smith’s hosting a big party as a demonstration of enthusiasm for soccer. About 75 people have committed to going so far on the Facebook event.

Sustain Charlotte has launched a petition supporting parks funding.

As for the parks and greenways: If they don’t get the money this year, they would likely be pushed back until at least 2024.

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Andrew Dunn
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