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Keeping The Hive Alive

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With Charlotte's competition for the Hornets so marginal -- at least until Louisville signs off on "The KFC Bucket" arena -- it would behoove the powers that be in this town to make a serious play to retain what is likely to be this city's only NBA franchise in our lifetime. In my opinion, here's what needs to happen to build an uptown arena and keep the Hornets and Sting in Charlotte:

A Commitment by the Hornets to Stay As former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt told me, "You can't tell people you're leaving, then expect them to commit to you."

He advocates that owner George Shinn make a convincing public commitment to keeping the team in Charlotte. Then, good will from sponsors and fans would begin returning, and local leaders could put together a plan for a new facility. "This is short of his selling the team, which is something I don't think he wants to do," says Gantt, who says he's shared these ideas with Shinn. Another part of the scenario, of course, is that creditors would have to help Shinn ride out his substantial losses for the near term.

Gantt, by the way, was mayor (1983-87) when the current coliseum was funded and built and when Shinn landed the NBA franchise. "There is not an overnight fix for this," Gantt says. "Shinn is on center stage, and the mayor and city council need to be creative and do something."

A Champion on City Council Yoo-hoo, are you out there? If you are, you've been doing a good job hiding since the defeated arena referendum in June -- which was a defeat of that troubled package and not necessarily of an arena in general.

The logical person to take the lead is Mayor Pat McCrory. Now that he's re-elected, he has the political capital to expend. But will he? Will his future goals as an elected official make him keep this controversial subject at arm's length, as he did before the referendum?

Forgiveness Sure, the owners have made mistakes, but today they've got competitive teams and outstanding coaches in Paul Silas and Anne Donovan. That's a start in terms of overcoming basketball errors that have undercut Shinn's effectiveness. Let's let bygones be bygones, and hope he's learned from the mistakes.

Understanding the NBA Once the Hornets leave -- say good-bye to the NBA as well. The NBA took a chance on Charlotte when it awarded the city a franchise in 1987, and isn't happy with the recent revolt against pro basketball in the Queen City.

"It's embarrassing for the league to be rejected by a city that was rewarded a franchise by it against all odds," says sports consultant Max Muhleman, who worked with Shinn to bring the team here. "I remember going to meetings back then, and one owner said, 'Oh yes, Charlotte. I think I fly over that between Atlanta and New York.' Still, the league and owners had the courage to pick Charlotte as the first choice for expansion. The same commissioner (David Stern) is still there. I think they read that (the defeated referendum) as somewhat personally insulting."

Realizing the Current Arena Limitations The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the 12-team college conference that includes Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone, has already snubbed Charlotte on a three-year contract deal to host the college league's annual basketball tournament -- so what group is next?

You don't hear the ACC or NCAA Final Four beating a path back here. There's a big reason -- the Coliseum on Tyvola Road. Lacking luxury boxes and a location near other attractions, major tournaments are less interested than they once were.

Cooperation with the County Commission Commission Chair Parks Helms is eager to work with the city on a master plan for the Third Ward area where an arena would go. "The arena needs to be a joint effort," Helms says. "I see it as a tremendous economic asset."

The county has land that could be used for the arena site. A master plan would include a park, retailers, office space and homes. The plan would enhance the attractiveness of uptown, increase tourism and boost property taxes.

Private Ownership for the Arena The City Council appears to have dug in on this, which I'm not sure is a good thing. City ownership of a new arena ensures city control of the facility and brings in revenues from events. A revenue stream of that sort from the current coliseum has subsidized Ovens Auditorium, Cricket Arena and other city venues.

But "Only Land and Infrastructure" has become the mantra of the council, fearful of voter backlash and eager for Shinn to put up some money -- which is justified.

So, the vaunted dealmakers in Charlotte's business community, where are you? Are you ready to invest in Charlotte's future? You have in the past, and this is a great opportunity. The "Bank of America Arena" has a nice ring to it.

Restructuring of Team Ownership This would seal the deal to get a new arena, but it's unlikely to happen. Shinn could do a great thing for himself and the city by realizing it's time for him to enjoy his legacy as the founding owner. He brought the team here -- remarkable in itself -- and has hung on through tough times. Now he ought to sell to someone or a group that can take the team to the next level. Done the right way, Shinn's passing the baton could make him a hometown hero again -- just as he was when he beat the odds in landing the Hornets.

Extra Points

Duke alum and first-year Charlotte coach Katie Meier and her charges will get a close-up look at Atlantic Coast Conference favorite, Duke, on Thursday, November 29 in a 7pm women's basketball game at Charlotte's Halton Arena. ...Charlotte's Men's basketball team will be a strong contender in Conference-USA if it plays as it did in a 65-61 loss to Indiana on November 18. Playing before a sellout crowd of 9,105 at Halton Arena, the 49ers led most of the game before succumbing to Indiana's trademark defense in the final three minutes. A big part of that? The recruit that got away -- Olympic High's George Leach, who had his best game in an IU uniform (eight points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots)...Pam Grundy, author of Learning to Win: Sports, Education and Social Change In Twentieth Century North Carolina, will present a lecture and sign her book at 2pm Saturday, December 8 at the Levine Museum of the New South. Admission is free with price of museum entry...The biggest challenge for the Carolina Panthers this season has been finishing ball games -- specifically keeping their concentration in those critical final minutes. The heartbreaking overtime 25-22 loss to San Francisco on November 18 was a case in point. The team had played well -- no turnovers, no sacks allowed and the conversion of three turnovers for 16 points -- but it wasn't enough. The defense broke down on San Francisco's final drive...Through the Charlote Hornets' first eight games, their defensive intensity has been as ephemeral as plans for a new arena. Let's hope both solidify in the coming weeks. *

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