Charlotte paying to live up to the NBA’s standards?



Here we go again. On Monday night City Council agreed to spend $27.5 million to “upgrade” the 9-year-old Time Warner Cable Arena, home of the Charlotte Hornets, “to the current NBA standard.” Let the uproar, the outrage and the political squabbling begin.

Well, maybe not. In fact, the “fight” appears to be over before it even began as City Council technically had to agree to the improvements — well, unless they wanted to get the lawyers involved. The city penned a contract with the Hornets nine years ago that contractually obligates us to “pay up” now, which leaves me and you holding the bag.

The 25-year operating contract contains provisions that require the city to keep the arena among the NBA’s most modern facilities, a somewhat vague declaration that led to a council discussion last night as to whether the proposed “improvements” were enjoyed by NBA teams in more than half of the other facilities around the country, according to the Charlotte Observer. After striking out some requests that were deemed unnecessary and should be left to the Hornets to pay for, the money was approved.

There are arguably some benefits in that agreement for the city, mainly that the Hornets agree to stay here longer. The current deal extends that time frame. And City Manager Ron Carlee told council members that the Hornets had the right, under the contract’s terms, to ask for much more than the nearly $48 million they originally requested. The city negotiated it down, and the Hornets will contribute some funds to the building’s maintenance and upkeep.

The money goes to “update” — hard to say with a straight face, when you’re talking about a facility that’s less than a decade old — things like the scoring and video digital equipment, the lighting, IT infrastructure, TV monitors and HD broadcast capabilities; to repair the floor and do some work on the restrooms; to improve the Founders- and event-level restaurants and the visitors’ locker room; and to correct an earlier mistake and move the ticket office to a different location. The money will come from two hospitality taxes that are already being collected from hotels, motels and car rentals, paid, supposedly, by visitors to the area, though there are concerns that this will strain the availability of funds for other purposes, like special events.

We know the city is obligated to pay up. Still, it’s odd that we haven’t seen more uproar over the improvements today. Charlotte has seen more than a quarter century of bloody warfare over the issue of public funding for arenas and stadiums. And remember the nasty public fight over giving the Carolina Panthers $87.5 million for “improvements” to Bank of America Stadium a year ago, a fight City Council didn’t help when it had several closed-door meetings with team owner Jerry Richardson?

“Our hands were tied,” at-large Councilwoman Claire Fallon told me of last night’s decision. “I don’t like having to honor a contract that someone else made without any input, and I’m really going to hesitate approving any contracts in the future that make obligations to a Council down the line, because that’s wrong.”

But is anyone on council thinking of refusing to pay? According to Fallon, the answer is a simple and flat “no.”

“Would anybody doing business with us ever trust us again if we used legal recourse to break this contract? We’re backed into a corner. What matters now is that we make sure we never allow things like this to happen again, that we don’t obligate future councils to contracts that they won’t have the ability to consider for themselves.”

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