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A New Pitch for Minor League Baseball

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Charlotte Center City Partners is pitching a potential deal to bring a minor league baseball stadium uptown.

But get out your scorecard. It's a complicated proposal that involves swapping city and county land with private developers. And it would require Mecklenburg County to change its plans for a long-desired park in the Third Ward neighborhood near Bank of America Stadium.

When it is all said and done, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would have a new headquarters, Marshall Park would be in the hands of private developers, and the Charlotte Knights would move from Fort Mill, S.C., to a new $34 million ballpark.

The list of people who would likely have to sign off on the deal includes at least two private companies, the Mecklenburg County commissioners, Charlotte City Council, the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

It's unclear what the plan would cost taxpayers.

In the past, the Knights have asked city and county officials to pick up at least half the price of a new stadium. This deal, though, includes private investors who are willing to help cover the tab.

Center City Partners President Michael Smith outlined the proposal to the county commissioners Tuesday night. It was the first time the public - as well as some elected officials - had heard of the plan. The Observer first reported the details on its Web site Tuesday evening.

"It's much too premature to say whether this is feasible, workable, whatever," said Charlotte City Manager Pam Syfert. "Both sides are going to have to get a lot more information."

The commissioners were intrigued enough to direct County Manager Harry Jones to study the deal. Several complimented its scope and creativity.

"You guys have done a masterful job of putting an awful lot of puzzle pieces together," said commissioner Jim Puckett.

The Charlotte Knights would be the clear beneficiary of the deal. The minor-league team says it has been bleeding money at its stadium in Fort Mill, where attendance is among the lowest in AAA baseball.

The team moved out of Charlotte's South End in 1989 while under the control of George Shinn, the owner of the former Charlotte Hornets NBA team.

The Knights have been trying to return to Charlotte for years, but their proposals have always fallen apart. In March, county commissioners voted down a plan for a ballpark in Third Ward, saying they wanted to use their land for an urban park instead.

The county bought the eight-acre Third Ward site for $24 million in 2001. Since then, it's been talked about as the potential home for a basketball arena, a baseball stadium, a private residential development, or some combination of the above.

So what's new in this deal? The latest plan involves a new, five-acre parcel of land, which is owned by Wachovia and Mass Mutual. It's next door to the eight acres of county land.

In exchange for the parcel where the stadium would be built, the county would get the smaller property for a park. Although smaller, it would include a strip of land that would connect the park to South Tryon Street. That could bring more visitors and encourage more private development near the park.

In return for its land, Mass Mutual would get property several blocks away, in city-owned Marshall Park. The company, which is represented by Spectrum Properties, would build an 11-acre project with offices, stores, restaurants, apartments and condos, said Spectrum Chairman Jim Dulin.

That would inject residential life into a part of uptown that's now filled with government buildings and parking lots.

The county would then use tax revenue from that project to replace Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' aging Education Center, which borders Marshall Park.

Several commissioners said if they swap the Third Ward land, they want to make sure they get a fair return. Dulin said Mass Mutual would be willing to put cash in the deal if the appraisals for its land and the public property come in significantly different.

The Knights new stadium would be built by the team, according to Center City Partners, an uptown promotional group. Their proposal says the team and "private sources" are willing to spend $34 million.

In the past, the most team owner Don Beaver has offered to pay is about half that cost. He's asked local officials to provide land and pay for the other half.

Bill Allen, who owns a minority share of the team, said the Knights are willing to contribute more now because they're convinced an uptown stadium would pay off in attendance and sponsorship dollars.

He wouldn't reveal the private investors who had stepped forward to contribute to the Knights' share of the deal.

Baseball lovers who hope this might be the first step toward the big leagues shouldn't get their hopes up, though.

Allen said the new stadium wouldn't help lure the Florida Marlins - who are looking for a new home - or another major league team to Charlotte.

The site isn't large enough to build a ballpark that could be expanded to accommodate the big leagues, he said.

--Staff writers Doug Smith and Carrie Levine contributed.

What's Next?

The Mecklenburg County commissioners voted unanimously to study the minor-league stadium deal proposed Tuesday.

Center City Partners will now take the plan to other key parties, including the Charlotte City Council, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and county park and recreation department.

The commissioners also want to consult Third Ward neighborhood residents.

What is a Ward?

Charlotte began as a small trading village in the 1700s, but it had grown enough by the 1850s that city leaders split it into four "wards," each with its own elected representative.

The wards grew in size as the city spread out, and seven more were added as suburbs such as Dilworth and Myers Park were built. The ward system was abandoned in 1945, but uptown neighborhoods are still identified that way, with Trade and Tryon streets as the dividing lines.

After World War II, city residents fled to the suburbs for many decades, until a slow renaissance began in the 1970s. Today, three of the wards are thriving with new development and condo projects.

The exception is Second Ward, which makes up the southeast quadrant. It was home to the mostly black neighborhood known as "Brooklyn," which was bulldozed during the urban renewal period of the 1960s. In its place, a collection of hotels, parking lots and government buildings has gone up.