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Citizen Servatius: The Real Deal

Questions about an arena no one will want to answer

We need to get a few things straight about the new arena deal before we start frantically hurling money in any particular direction. I know that injecting a dose of reality into coverage of uptown booster projects is considered a cheap shot around here, but it's what they pay me the big bucks to do, and I have to eat, you know. We'll start with semantics. After the corporate virtuosos announced their plan to shuffle $100 million into and out of a new arena deal, city leaders immediately started referring to the potential deal as a "public-private partnership." While the offer was well-meant, it is anything but a "public-private partnership." In a partnership, parties share risks and returns equally. But in this deal -- as of deadline -- the corporations' risk comes to about $50 million. They'll put it into the deal in cash, and reap it back when naming rights, beverage licenses and deposits on PSLs and suites are sold and the money comes back in. If they don't sell, the corps lose the money. As for the other $50 million, it will come in the form of property purchases of the old coliseum on Tyvola Road and the old convention center, both of which taxpayers paid well over $50 million to build. The corporations will buy those properties from the city assuming that the current value of the two properties appraises at $50 million.

So the best way to look at the $100 million is as a generous bridge loan, rather than a donation. That means that when the loan is up, we're on our own. Memo to taxpayers: that means that YOU will be covering any operating deficits the arena generates. If the anchor tenant's owners put up a shoddy team no one wants to watch and no one shows up, you and I pay. To date, it's estimated that the coliseum could run an operating deficit of $3 million a year (that's $30 million over 10 years) or more. But then, no one really knows, because there's just no way to calculate for sure how well the dome will do.

And what about cost overruns on the building, infrastructure or parking facilities? Someone will have to pay that, too, and you can bet it won't be the corporations or the teams or the players. So who will it be then, hmm?

One of the greatest frailties of the deal is the position of utter dependence upon a few dozen wealthy corporate types the city will put itself in if it mortgages its soul to a new arena. Someone has to buy/lease those luxury suites for the next 15 to 30 years to make this deal work. But even that isn't enough. They'll have to show up and throw high-priced parties and buy expensive food and wine year after year to keep an NBA team and ultimately the arena in business. They'll have to be willing to stick with this team and its players through tedium, felony convictions, and mayhem.

But as it stands, we'd be building the luxury suites to entertain them without knowing exactly who they are and whether they plan to use them indefinitely -- or buy them in the first place. And who do we go to after the thing is built to demand that they continue to show up at games or renew their season tickets? Sure, Bank of America, Wachovia and Duke Power are committed to this thing, but the arena will have dozens of luxury suites. Who will want them, and for how long?

And what about the common fans who can't afford luxury seating? I know they aren't all that important to the financial picture, but they do serve an important role as window dressing because the luxury suiters wouldn't want to have their caviar in some creepy, hollow dome. We'd have to double the current number of fans who buy cheap seating to bring anything like excitement back to the arena, something a new building alone couldn't possibly do. Who or what will bring them back?

And what about the more than $100 million that was supposed to go to new arts and entertainment facilities? What about the Mint Museum of Art, Discovery Place, the Afro-American Cultural Center, a minor league baseball stadium, Theatre Charlotte and the Carolina Theater? What about the $100,000 the Arts & Science Council spent on the referendum campaign?

Last Monday, Mayor Pat McCrory said that building the arena wouldn't impact whether these projects got done, although he didn't say how the city would pay for them. He should. To build a new arena, the city has $80 million in financing ability from the hotel-motel tax, and a ticket tax could generate some more. But if the city has to struggle to find at least $40 million more to pay for arena parking and infrastructure uptown, where will the money for the other promised projects come from? I'll tell you where: property taxes.

Finally, how can we trust a word city leaders say about anything when we voted 43 percent to 57 percent against a referendum that asked us whether the city should spend existing hotel/motel money and other available funds not including property taxes on an arena? What does the fact that we now have an offer of a $100 million bridge loan change? Nothing. The only thing that's changed is that these folks didn't get their way the first time, and they're back again, running like blind dogs in a meat factory, and hoping no one will notice. *

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