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Citizen Servatius: Talk Talk 

New council's talk of an arena is meaningless

It's like this. On November 6, the "can-do" city elected another "tell us what to do" city council. If the last two years are any indication, they'll accomplish nothing of consequence, and I'll hopefully get paid 3 percent more a year to tell you about it. This concludes Creative Loafing's analysis of this year's election and what it meant to you. What it meant to those who won is much more interesting, so we've decided to cover that instead.

If you make it to the end of this paragraph, you'll be among a limited group of folks who understand what will drive everything that happens in Charlotte politically in the next two years. All of it hinges on one number. That number is 49,854.

It's the number of votes received by Republican Lynn Wheeler, the council member most publicly associated with the arena debacle, and the recent winner of Creative Loafing's Best Attempt at Political Suicide award. Despite the fact that the sports and entertainment referendum went down 43 to 57 percent, Wheeler finished first in the at-large council elections. Had Wheeler, who was also the first place at-large finisher in the 1999 race, lost her Queen Bee status and come in behind anyone else running in this election, things might be different. Politicians would have assumed that fallout from the arena referendum cost Wheeler votes. But Wheeler's out-front finish, and the order in which the rest of the field stacked up, taught the city's politicians three very important things about manipulating Charlotte voters.

First, the impact of the September 11 tragedy notwithstanding, the political memory of Charlotte voters for local scrapes that don't involve homosexuality or nudity is less than three months. Second, we may know our politicians' names, but we really have no idea who they are or what they stand for on an individual basis. Remove racial politics from the mix, and you'll see that the vast majority of Charlotteans voted for those whose names sounded most familiar. And there's only one way to buy name identification with those kinds of voters: money.

It wasn't lost on anyone in Charlotte political circles that the three at-large finishers behind Wheeler finished in descending order according not to their experience, effectiveness or their records, but according to how much money they raised and spent. That money came from uptown banking and development interests, and so until about three months before the next council election in 2003, that's who most of these people will belong to.

Wheeler's 49,854 votes were barely counted before council members began to yap about reopening the arena discussion. Those doing the yapping were some of the same candidates, mind you, who spent months on the campaign trail solemnly insisting that the people had spoken on the arena issue, and that there was nothing left to debate.

So they've stabbed us in the back, right? Nope. That would require action. If regular readers of this column have learned anything about politics, it should be this: what politicians say is never as important as when they say it and why.

Think about it. If city leaders were incapable of taking concrete action for over two years before the June 6 referendum, do you really believe they'll do it now?

What happened was that some of the city's leadership was embarrassed by the loss of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament to Raleigh because our current coliseum lacks the amenities to compete. The fact that they didn't dare open their mouths about it before the election without reminding the electorate of the arena debacle made the situation all the more awkward.

But that still doesn't mean anyone is actually planning to build a new uptown arena for the Hornets, no matter what anyone says. The reason it's easy to talk about an arena now is because everyone knows that this city couldn't pay for it if it wanted to, so no one will actually have to do anything.

For starters, revenues for the hotel-motel tax are down about 11 percent a month because hotel occupancy is down, a trend that began before the September 11 terrorist attacks. The tax, which was supposed to generate $80 million to $100 million of the money that would pay off an arena, will now likely generate $70 million to $90 million. But there's no telling.

Mohammad Jenatian, president of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, told Creative Loafing this week that the Charlotte hotel industry will struggle for the next year to stay afloat -- and that there's a possibility that many hotels, particularly some of those uptown, won't make it. The 65 percent to 70 percent room occupancy rates of last year, which kept many Charlotte hotels at the break-even point, has sunk to the low-to-mid-50s, he said.

Jenatian figures most of the chain-owned hotels, including those uptown, can hang on another year or so at this rate. And he spoke of the possibility of a repeat of the Charlotte hotel industry disaster of the early 1990s, when dozens of the city's hotels, including nearly every uptown hotel, went out of business.

At the same time, Jenatian said, to keep the tourism industry afloat, the city needs uptown attractions. And, he reminded council members, the industry willingly sought the hotel-motel tax and turned its revenues over to the city so it could build them, a fact that probably drove the council members who industry and business leaders have been leaning on to bring the arena back up while vote machines were still warm.

Not that it will make any difference. Even with the hotel-motel tax money, the state has said no to other revenue sources like a rental car tax, slashing the total $342 million that was supposed to fund the sports and cultural entertainment package by more than half. And though other media have repeatedly reported supposed arena talks between Charlotte's private sector leaders and the Hornets, our sources say it's just not so.

"Yeah," said one source. "What they mean is once a month somebody pulls a number out of a Rolodex and calls the (Hornets')owners to see if anything has changed. It hasn't."

Even if the Hornets' owners were willing to sell, new local owners would likely have to foot a $75 million to $100 million bill for their share of arena construction before they even thought about buying the team. Even with pooled resources, it's doubtful the city's financial leaders could or would cobble together up to half a billion dollars to purchase and keep a team that's losing at least $12 million a year on the court, and sustain it for long enough to rebuild it into a profitable enterprise, assuming that's possible.

There's no one to save the Hornets, but there's plenty of people to talk about it.

And why not? These days, talking is what we do best. *

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