The Charlotte Knights could pass another base toward playing in Charlotte this week. Mecklenburg County commissioners are expected to approve a plan tonight to let the minor-league team build a stadium in uptown Charlotte.
Tonight's vote isn't the final step in moving the team from its current home in Fort Mill. The Knights still must come up with a plan to pay for the new 10,006-seat stadium, in which they hope to play during the 2009 season.
But the lease agreement clears the way for further construction work on the stadium site -- and marks the closest the Knights have come to make their move back to Charlotte a reality. The team played in the old Crocket Park, which was destroyed by fire in 1985.
Dan Rajkowski, vice president and general manager for the Knights, called the vote "a critical milestone in a long process."
Under the proposal, the Knights would pay $1 annually for just under 8 acres of county land bounded by South Graham, West Fourth and South Mint streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The lease would last for 49 years, and could be renewed twice for 25 years each.
The county already has approved a $8 million grant to let the Knights start preparing the site. But the team would pay to build and maintain the facility. The stadium is estimated to cost $35 million to $40 million if not more, Rajkowski said.
Last month, commissioners voted 7-1 on a resolution declaring the board's intent to enter into the lease agreement with the Knights. Commission chair Jennifer Roberts said she can't see anything that would stop commissioners from approving the agreement tonight.
Lawsuit in motion
The deal isn't without controversy.
Jerry Reese, a real estate attorney who has pushed to bring a major-league team to the city, said Monday that he and Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl are ready to sue if commissioners approve the lease agreement.
Their main contention- When voters approved bond money for the Third Ward park land in 2004, it was under the condition that it could not be used for a professional baseball stadium.
County leaders have said the referendum stated the bond money couldn't be spent to build a stadium.
Would help attendance
The Knights have tried repeatedly within the past decade to move in or near uptown Charlotte.
Rajkowski said the growth uptown offers a chance to double the team's attendance. Currently, about 300,000 attend the games each season, and Rajkowski thinks that could grow to 550,000 to 600,000 from a move to Charlotte.
A new stadium for the team originally was included into the failed 2001 nonbinding referendum for an arena and arts package. Other pitches followed in 2003 and 2004.
But the effort received a big push in 2005 when officials from Center City Partners joined in, crafting a complicated land swap deal resulting in not only the stadium but a park and mixed-use development.
Other parts of plan
Tonight, commissioners also are set to vote on aspects of those plans: The sale of 11.33 acres for the mixed-use project called "Brooklyn Village" and the purchase of land in Third Ward for an urban park.
County General Manager Bobbie Shields called tonight's votes the final significant actions by the board related to the land swap.
However, he said not all of the deals will be finalized until other lawsuits brought by Reese challenging the land swap are resolved. Reese has appealed a judge's October decision to dismiss his suit, which could take years to settle.
Nonetheless, commissioners said the baseball stadium, park and Brooklyn Village project will help revitalize downtown.
"Once this is done," said vice-chairman Parks Helms, "we will have created a center city that will be unequaled in this country as terms as its livability."H6>Proposed Lease Agreement
Mecklenburg County commissioners are expected to approve a lease agreement to let the Charlotte Knights build a stadium in uptown Charlotte. Among the provisions-
Team pays $1 annually for 49 years (with two chances to renew for two 25-year periods) to lease about 8 acres of county land
Knights agree to play nearly all of the team's home games at the stadium, though it is allowed to play exhibition games and up to five home games elsewhere
The Knights can't break the lease for at least eight years, and can do so after then if there are two consecutive seasons with paid attendance of less than 430,000
The team's name must include the word "Charlotte" throughout the lease.