SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name
Strange brew in Charlotte
Published June 4, 2001
Will the sports facility industry learn anything from Charlotte's arena referendum?
Citizens in the North Carolina city theoretically will decide the fate of their Hornets Tuesday when they vote yea or nay on a $342 million, seven-project bundle that includes $280 million for a downtown arena.
However, issues involved have become muddled. Voters must sort through such a thicket of political sideshows that any result will be clouded, at best.
For one thing, the referendum is nonbinding. Arena proponents such as the business-driven Decade of Progress committee, along with a presumed majority of the City Council, could push ahead with a retooled financial package even if the referendum loses.
Likewise, opponents will retain plenty of ammunition in the event of a yes vote. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and his pro-arena allies have insisted that no construction can begin until the team proves it can sell 75 percent of planned luxury suites and club seats — a key element of paying for the building.
There's another unusual element involved, too.
Hornets owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge — both of whom live out of state — have become hugely unpopular. Most polls indicate that Charlotte citizens, including plenty of Hornets fans, feel uncomfortable handing the current ownership an expensive new playpen.
Max Muhleman, president of Muhleman Marketing — a Charlotte subsidiary of IMG — was a key figure in the city's landing of both the Hornets and the NFL Carolina Panthers. Muhleman isn't sure how the Shinn-Wooldridge factor will play out.
"Charlotte is a very young, immature sports market," Muhleman said. "We're not even into our adolescence yet. People haven't figured out yet that owners come and go, and teams belong to cities and fans.
"As someone who lives here, it's slightly embarrassing because it's so irrational. To say that if you build a better building that enhances the community, then you're doing a bad thing because a guy you may not like may make a little money off it — that's not rational thinking."
There are plenty of other local issues that have turned the Charlotte referendum upside down, as well.
For instance, until last week, the main group fighting the ballot measure was Charlotteans Opposed to Sports Taxes (CO$T). But McCrory's veto of a council measure raising the city's minimum wage to $9 an hour earned him the wrath of another organization, Helping Empower Local People (HELP).
Talk about strange bedfellows: The anti-tax crowd probably wouldn't agree with HELP's constituency on any issue except the arena, which each is opposing for different reasons.
In the midst of this squabble, recently retired Hugh McColl — former chairman of Bank of America, major benefactor of city projects and an up-front arena supporter — stepped into the limelight with some TV appearances.
"These people who want to vote no," McColl said, "what have they ever done to improve Charlotte?"
Then there is the saga of the arena design, which is being done by Kansas City-based Ellerbe Becket.
Several city officials didn't like Ellerbe's preliminary drawings and a group of 40 citizens was asked to help set some goals for the basic arena design. Ellerbe Becket then brought back a second set of drawings, and some local media reported that considerable dissatisfaction remained — a potentially serious problem just days before the referendum.
"But that wasn't a fair representation at all," said Ron Gans, a senior project designer for Ellerbe Becket. "Basically, the people who were quoted in the newspaper were people opposed to the arena being built at all.
"The fact is that we're right on board with the city staff, the planning director and the Hornets with our design. It's still not finished, but our clients — the city and the team — say they're very satisfied we've addressed some of the issues involved."
With all these peripheral issues being debated and so many distinctly local matters thrown out for argument, it might be hard to read much into Tuesday's referendum result — whichever way it goes.
"It's been a classic case of opponents totally clouding the core issue to keep voters from understanding the basic facts of it," said Steve Luquire, president of the consulting firm that has advised pro-arena campaigners. "In the end, there are far more people in Charlotte in favor of this package, which would be a huge benefit to the city. But those same folks who vote no on everything will vote no on this, and they'll definitely show up to vote.
"One thing we've got in common with other cities that have had referendums is that the result will be determined by turnout. If enough people vote, this thing will pass."