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Doing the ballpark shuffle in Uptown Charlotte 

Council, tell the boosters that enough is enough

Last week, Councilwoman Claire Fallon had had enough of Center City Partners' ever-changing Uptown baseball park numbers. "It's a charade, the numbers don't even do what they say they do," the first-term at-large councilwoman told me.

Fallon was reacting to the latest Partners/city staff number-shuffling show, in which the Uptown business boosters tried once more to convince the city's elected leaders that the Charlotte Knights baseball park "deal" wasn't as bad as it really is.

This time one of the hooks used to catch unwary council members was a vanishing act by the previously proposed $2.5 million property tax rebate for the Knights. Another hook was adding more hotel/motel tax revenues — now totaling $7.25 million — to the pot, along with — get this — $750,000 from Center City itself. For Fallon, who is opposed to the Uptown ballpark no matter the financial arrangements, the boosters' sudden generosity was the last straw.

"I told them I'd like to reduce the stipend the city gives them by that much ($750K)," she said. "So now the Center City folks aren't talking to me."

Councilwoman Beth Pickering, another first-term at-large member, doesn't think the ballpark is a good idea, either.

"It is not the best use of that valuable Uptown property," Pickering told me. She, like Fallon and others, wants to see a park in that location, as was originally approved by voters in a referendum. As Pickering pointed out, studies consistently show that parks draw economic development much better than sports facilities.

Fallon agrees, saying, "The whole idea of development growing up around [an Uptown baseball park] is so much pie-in-the-sky. Who wants to live on top of something like that? Nobody. I'd rather see a park there."

Both Pickering and Fallon emphasize that they're not against minor-league baseball on principle; both of them say they could support a minor-league ballpark somewhere else, such as SouthEnd, the Metrolina Fairground area or the old Eastland Mall location.

"The families are there [Eastland]," said Pickering, "transportation is there, and, of course, I would love to see the east side get a major economic boost." Fallon touts the Metrolina area, saying, "It's located between I-77 and I-85, with I-485 nearby, and it would give a chance to help rebuild those communities."

Those plans, however, don't meet Center City's smell test. That is, they're not redolent of the scent of Uptown money. In a nutshell, that is a central problem the City Council, and indeed Charlotte, face now: Center City, which has accumulated so much power over the city's agenda that they now have the city staff doing their legwork for them, isn't interested in the whole city — just the Uptown area.

As we've noted here before, in the late 1980s, when Uptown was like a graveyard after 6 p.m., it made sense to find ways to strengthen the area. Thus, new sidewalks, venues, museums, music festivals, snazzy architecture, even a trolley, came into being, all ably assisted by the group. Those were followed by more Uptown housing, restaurants, clubs, etc. No one could possibly confuse Uptown Charlotte today with the empty, dangerous ghost town of yesteryear, which is great. The obvious problem today, though, is that Uptown doesn't need the city's assistance anymore, while other areas of town practically scream for help. In a city with serious infrastructure needs and a major capital spending plan in the works, Uptown boosterism seems increasingly shallow, if not callous. And yet the dog-and-pony shows and the pressuring of elected officials continues.

"It's the same machinations that preceded the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the same song-and-dance about pie-in-the-sky," Fallon said. "You'd think we'd learn, but ... it's like they're on an adrenaline rush and they just have to keep coming up with these money-losing projects. Well, enough is enough."

Seeing as how last week's number-shuffling was reminiscent of the old "pea-hidden-under-three-walnuts" scam, any official who swallows these latest figures probably needs a memory test, maybe even an IQ test.

"If it passes," Fallon said, "here's what's going to happen: it will be partially built, the Knights will run out of money — we've told them we're not giving them anymore — and they'll come to us and say, 'You want that white elephant, a quarter built, standing there? If not, you're gonna have to help us.'"

She's right. Whatever happens between now and June 11, when council is scheduled to vote on the matter, members need to think long and hard about who elected them, and whom they are supposed to be working for.

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