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City Council Acts Fast to Give Approval

Source: Charlotte Observer  

March 07, 2006

Charlotte's hall-of-fame contract with NASCAR -- hundreds of pages worth -- zoomed into public view just before 4 p.m. Monday.

Within the next four hours, the balloons dropped, the City Council voted unanimously and Mayor Pat McCrory signed the deal.

Monday's fast-paced action concluded more than a year of work and weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations and closed-door council meetings.

"I would have liked to have had more time and I frankly would have liked more public discussion," said council member Anthony Foxx. "But once the council majority decided how to proceed, I tried to evaluate the proposal on its merits and it had a lot of positives for the community."

McCrory and several council members reiterated Monday that the hall was an economic development competition. Early disclosure, they said, could have tipped Charlotte's hand to the other cities.

"We have operated in the open as much as we could -- and still protect the interests of the city," said Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess.

McCrory told the Observer he is confident the contract has received proper scrutiny. He cited all the partners at the negotiating table, including the city manager, city attorneys, City Council members and bank executives.

Mark Dyer, NASCAR's vice president for licensing, said NASCAR did not demand a Monday night vote, but agreed jointly with the city to proceed quickly. The council has no regular business meeting until March 27, and the thought of "another agonizing three weeks" was too much, Dyer said.

Two council members told the Observer that NASCAR rejected attempts to lengthen the process. They would only speak anonymously on that point, saying they wished to avoid appearing critical of NASCAR.

There will be time for public scrutiny of one key piece of the deal -- the 2 percentage point increase in the tax on hotel rooms, authorized by the state legislature last year.

On Wednesday, Mecklenburg commissioners are expected to set a March 21 public hearing on the tax increase. The tax cannot take effect until commissioners approve it.

The council's quick public nod on the hall of fame echoed the city's approval of Charlotte Bobcats Arena, when council members received final contracts just before the vote and later learned of details they didn't like.

"The arena deal was much more complicated, bigger and harder to get your arms around," said council member Don Lochman, who voted against the arena. "This is nothing like that."

He and other council members said they have known the basics of the NASCAR contract for months and had several weeks to review it and suggest changes.

Most of that basic deal was aired in public last summer, shortly after Charlotte submitted its bid to NASCAR. It has not changed substantially since then, said council member Pat Mumford.

Burgess said she established a bottom line -- that no general tax money be used for the hall of fame.

"For me, that was the beginning non-negotiable," she said.

The council met in closed session several times on the deal, reviewing it with the team of lawyers and city officials who negotiated with NASCAR. Two big issues, council members said, were protecting the city from any annual operating losses and reviewing how the hall could use images from race teams, which are not owned by NASCAR.

City Attorney Mac McCarley said Monday that the city used attorneys from two private law firms and from Bank of America to navigate the complex worlds of public-private finance, intellectual property law and sports licensing.

Because some of the bank financing is so unusual, the city created a new, private limited-liability corporation last week, with city finance director Greg Gaskins as the company's president. That private company, created solely for the hall-of-fame deal, allows Charlotte to borrow money from Bank of America and Wachovia in a way that state law does not let the city government do, city attorneys said.

Council member Michael Barnes said he would have liked more public discussion, particularly on how the cost of the hall increased from $137.5 million to $154.5 million. But Barnes, who joined the council months after the city submitted its bid, said he also recognized that public discussions could have given crucial information to Atlanta and Daytona Beach.

"At the end of the day, I realized this isn't a perfect world," he said. "And we kinda have to do the best we can with what we have."