The county just threw a huge wrench in the Major League Soccer deal

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The discussions on whether and how taxpayers should fund a new stadium to house Major League Soccer were turned on their head Wednesday night.

Charlotte’s chances of landing a Major League Soccer team aren’t dead. But the bid was dealt a significant setback. Meanwhile, supporters of parks and greenways earned a major victory.

After a winding debate, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners ultimately voted 5-3 to deed Memorial Stadium to the city of Charlotte and end the possibility of contributing cash to the deal.

If this sounds different from anything you’ve ever heard about the Major League Soccer deal, you’re right.

And the vote came after commissioners chairwoman Ella Scarborough — the swing vote — appeared confused about what she was voting for.

Here’s an explainer of what happened.

Catch me up … how did we get to this point?

It’s a really long saga at this point but I’ll do my best to get through it quickly.

  1. Last year, Major League Soccer announced they want to create four new teams. Cities were invited to bid on them.
  2. Marcus Smith, the president of Speedway Motorsports and GM of Charlotte Motor Speedway, says he wants to bring a team to Charlotte.
  3. Smith works out the framework of a deal with the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County staff. The city and the county would each put up $43.75 million in cash toward a new stadium that would replace the county-owned Memorial Stadium in the Elizabeth neighborhood. The county would also loan the Smiths $75 million to be paid back over 25 years.
  4. The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners votes 5-4 to approve its part of the deal.
  5. The City Council decides not to vote, sending everything back into a holding pattern.
  6. Six months later, both the City Council and county commissioners decide they’ll take the issue back up.
  7. The City Council begins discussing a plan to put up $30 million in cash toward the deal.

That set up the most recent drama.

What was last night about?

The county commissioners essentially were going to vote between two choices.

Choice 1: Mecklenburg County delays a decision on whether to put up cash for Major League Soccer until the City Council makes a decision. The county would essentially agree to put up $30 million if the city does the same.

Choice 2: Mecklenburg County votes to deed Memorial Stadium over to the city and then wash their hands of the whole thing. The county would not put up any cash. Instead, they’d take $49 million and finish all the park and greenway projects that have been delayed since 2008.

[Agenda story: Does Mecklenburg County really need to choose either soccer or greenways?]

sugar creek greenway

So which did they pick?

Choice 2.

Here’s how it all went down: We knew going into Wednesday’s meeting that four commissioners supported that option: Republicans Bill James, Jim Puckett and Matthew Ridenhour, and Democrat Pat Cotham.

We knew that three were in favor of the first choice: Dumont Clarke, Trevor Fuller and George Dunlap (all Dems).

Democrat Ella Scarborough, the chairwoman, was more of a question mark. She voted back in January to fund soccer. But she had spoken with the Choice 2 advocates on Tuesday and Wednesday and said she was leaning toward siding with them.

But then Scarborough spent all of her time during the meeting exhorting everyone to support soccer, throwing her vote back into question.

Just to add more drama, Democrat Vilma Leake didn’t attend the meeting because she’s recovering from knee surgery. It looked like the vote could be a 4-4 tie.

But then Scarborough voted for Choice 2, giving it a 5-3 edge. However, she immediately appeared unsure of what exactly she was voting for.

Fuller immediately jumped in angrily, telling Scarborough she was voting to kill Major League Soccer in Charlotte. Each side gave an abbreviated version of their side of things, and the board voted again.

Scarborough kept her vote the same. 5-3. Choice 2 wins.

IT WAS NUTS. I guess you had to be there.

Why did Ella Scarborough say she supports soccer and then vote to keep the county from giving it money?

I can’t read her mind, but I do think by her second vote, she knew what she was voting for.

My understanding is that her view is nuanced. The city of Charlotte has a tax on hotel rooms and uses the money to fund things like incentives for sports teams (they’ve given money to the Panthers and Hornets).

Her vote to give Memorial Stadium to the city puts them in the driver’s seat to do a solo deal with the MLS people.

view-of-the-panthers-stadium-from-museum-tower

Wait, does the city even want Memorial Stadium?

Yeah, that’s a weird part of the county’s vote. They can’t force the city of Charlotte to take Memorial Stadium. There’s no indication that they want it.

So is the MLS deal dead?

Not necessarily.

I see a scenario in which the City Council does a deal with the Smiths to fund a Major League Soccer stadium on their own. Now that they have the chance to own Memorial Stadium, they could decide to put up enough money where it would make sense to build a new stadium.

Of course, the city doesn’t have an unending pot of money. And they’re also feeling pressure to put more money toward affordable housing.

Nobody on council responded to messages late last night about all this.

I really want Major League Soccer in Charlotte. Should I be happy about this?

No, in your case, this wasn’t a positive development.

Consider it a yellow card to the MLS bid.

What happens now?

The City Council is going to have to digest everything that just happened. They’re already planning to meet to discuss putting money toward soccer.

Now they have a much different set of circumstances to consider.

Could the county commissioners change their minds again?

Probably not. The vote commits $49 million to the park and greenway projects. There just isn’t likely to be money for soccer from the county now.

But, of course, anything is possible.

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Andrew Dunn
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Editor-in-Chief