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Eyes On The Prize 

A new arena will be worth the trouble

So is Charlotte really losing its soul over trying to build an uptown arena? Hardly.

To a degree, the soul of this community is dealmaking. Who runs Charlotte? It's not artists and entertainers, not social reformers, not educators, not politicians. It's first and foremost, business people. Charlotte is not that much different today from when Trade and Tryon were Native American trading paths. Selling and buying, selling and buying -- that's why Charlotte exists.

But soul touches more than our city's reason for being. It gets at our moral fiber -- how we choose to spend our collective money. On that score, Charlotte-Mecklenburg could do better, but it does OK.

We ante up for education, helping the less fortunate, arts and cultural opportunities and economic development. Our high per capita contribution rate to the Arts & Science Council, as well as consistent support of United Way is evidence. This city also places a premium on spirituality (we're known by some as "the City of Churches.") and on services for children and families. Hard to argue with these priorities.

And none of this has changed in the wake of the protracted debate over a new arena -- which, incidentally, is an important part of one of those priorities, economic development.

To a great degree, I think we're simply sick of the dealmaking process. It's ugly. It's messy, and the facts are a moving target. But ask anyone on Capitol Hill or in the state legislature and you'll find that's simply the way complicated deals often work. It's like making sausage; you don't really want to see it done.

We've had to go to Pluto and back to craft an arena/ownership scenario that appears to pass muster with the majority of citizens. For some, that's been too much energy to pour into one project, and they don't like that the plan has changed over the last year. Our moral moorings are slipping away, they say.

I disagree, and ask: What could Charlotte build uptown that would bring more life to the center city on a year-round basis than an arena? I venture there is nothing. The Charlotte Hornets, who would be the anchor tenant, would fill only about a third of the more than 200 annual dates at the arena. Ice-skating shows, the circus, concerts, you name it, would be there week in and week out. Can you imagine what that will do for nightlife, for our hotels, our restaurants? Gosh, we could have a real, live downtown.

When I dropped by the dry cleaners the other day, someone asked me why the city is moving forward on an arena when the citizens so decisively voted down the referendum June 6.

"Voters turned down a particular package to make an arena a reality," I replied. "This package is more attractive financially, plus there's a strong prospect of a new ownership group emerging. There's no getting around the great dislike people feel toward the current owners. That figured heavily into the defeat of the referendum."

A lot has changed since June. 6. Not only is there a new financial package on the table, the Hornets have officially applied to move out of town. Many people thought they wouldn't find a suitor elsewhere so they'd wind up in Charlotte anyway.

The new financing deal would save the city $181.5 million in interest cost over 30 years, based on a 5.2 percent interest rate. That's because Wachovia, Duke Energy and Bank of America are willing to advance the city $100 million, reducing dramatically what the city has to borrow. Under the old proposal, the city would have borrowed $241.5 million. With the businesses providing $100 million, and drawing off other funds, the city would borrow only $96.6 million.

Some people would say we've lost our soul because the new proposal uses general city funds although the city council has voted not to include property taxes in that $26.5 million amount. Rightfully so, opponents worry that property taxes will come into play if there are cost overruns or the arena operating costs have to be subsidized. I worry about that, too. But I believe the need for a new arena is worth the risk. We need it to take uptown to the next level, and the city has been prudent in making the deal contingent on several key factors: An anchor tenant (the Charlotte Hornets), a new ownership group for the team, and a satisfactory lease arrangement.

Some say the city is losing its bearings because there will be a series of votes over the next two months on this issue. But having to vote at a number of junctures will allow the city to make sure the deal stays financially tenable for the city.

There are many variables in the situation. Will the arena deal be attractive enough to the NBA owners who have to vote on the move? Will a new ownership group also meet with the league's favor? Both have to be in place for the NBA owners to consider blocking the Hornets' move to New Orleans.

Bottom line -- if the NBA owners don't block the move, the Hornets are destined for life in the Big Easy. And Charlotte's destined for a downtown that's tomblike most nights of the week. No, we're not losing our soul over this deal. We're riding out a messy process that could bring a wonderful community benefit at the end. Let's keep our eyes on the prize.

This And That

The Duke women's basketball team has already clinched the regular-season conference crown and is a heavy favorite to win the ACC women's basketball tournament March 1-4 in Greensboro. Through 13 of 16 conference games, the Blue Devils (13-0, 21-3) were unbeaten in conference play while whomping ACC opponents by an average of 22 points. The closest a league competitor has gotten to Duke is five points (NC State on January 13)...When President George W. Bush was handed a cell phone as he stood among the American athletes at the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony, he told the mother of the participant who handed him the phone that her daughter was "well-behaved." Did anybody see the irony in that, given his own daughters' behavior at times?. . .Just about everybody has heard about Bank of America's high-profile sponsorship of the Salt Lake City Games. But did you know that another Charlotte-based business is playing what you might call a "gastronomical" role? Compass Group, whose North America operation is based at Tyvola Road and Billy Graham Parkway, is the food supplier to the athletes in the Olympic Village and officials running the show... Congratulations to the West Charlotte girls' and boys' basketball teams for already locking up regular-season basketball titles in the ME-CA. *

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