Jose Canseco as a Charlotte Knight, Class AAA affliliate of the White Sox, in 2002
Representatives from baseball's Florida Marlins will visit Charlotte in the coming weeks as they consider relocating the team to a proposed uptown stadium, a real estate lawyer told Mecklenburg County commissioners Wednesday night.
The National League team's visit is planned for February or March, said Jerry Reese. He has been pitching a 38,000-seat stadium as a centerpiece for what he calls The Brooklyn Renaissance Project, an ambitious plan that would redevelop an entire quadrant of uptown Charlotte.
Besides the retractable-roof stadium, Reese estimated, the 15-block project would add as much retail space as in Northlake Mall, offices and about 6,000 homes (mostly condos) to Second Ward.
Reese's plan has skeptics. Some sports marketers and civic leaders believe the Charlotte metro area -- which would be the major leagues' smallest-- won't have the population to support a major league team for a decade.
But Republicans and Democrats on the board of commissioners unanimously agreed to look into a proposal they called "intriguing," "amazing" and "exciting." They asked the county staff to study it, along with a competing, high-profile plan involving uptown baseball.
"I hope we can make this work," said commissioners Chairman Parks Helms. "I hope that you can translate this vision into reality. I will do what I can to make this happen."
While some have known of the plan, which Reese said has been in the works for three years, the news about the Marlins and a competing proposal last month to bring the minor-league Charlotte Knights uptown gave Reese's vision added urgency.
After years of developing the plans, Reese has just started to do the financial analysis needed to line up investors for the $600 million to $700 million project.
Marlins officials could not be reached late Wednesday. While the team has won two World Series titles since 1997, the organization has struggled financially, fueling talk of a move.
Major League Baseball officials gave the Marlins permission to look for another home in November, after talks to build a new stadium in South Florida stalled. The team's lease on its stadium near Miami runs out after the 2007 season.
Reese, a Catawba County native, is no stranger to big plans. In 2002, he said he wanted to be the one to bring an expansion NBA team to Charlotte, after the Hornets left. He asked NBA Commissioner David Stern to allow a new type of team ownership, one that would allow a group of local owners to sell shares publicly to help finance it.
At the time, he said, "I don't want to mislead the public that I've got everything in place. But this concept has received many positive responses." The plan never went through.
Reese said a Marlins stadium would be built with private money. He would obtain the land through a complicated swap involving the city, county and school system. Tax dollars would be needed for costs such as parking and street improvements, which Reese said would be paid for with a system called tax increment financing.
That means the taxes raised from the project would be enough to cover the investment of tax dollars, Reese said.
Charlotte Center City Partners pitched a complicated land swap last month to move the Knights from their Fort Mill, S.C., home to Third Ward. That location isn't big enough for a major-league stadium.
Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, said the minor-league stadium is a better fit for the area's current population, even with its major-league aspirations.
"This is the kind of creativity we need people to offer in Charlotte," Smith said Wednesday night of Reese's plan. "But I don't think Charlotte at this time is ready for Major League Baseball. We are absorbing our second professional sports team, and we're probably 15 to 20 years away from being ready."
Elected leaders for the city, county and the school system will now have to weigh the two plans, because both involve land owned by those agencies.
The stadium proposed by Reese would be built near the proposed site for a NASCAR Hall of Fame, at Second and Brevard streets.
He said he envisions 5 million visitors annually. Reese said the stadium would be big enough to draw conventions and sports tournaments. The Charlotte Bobcats Arena is considered too small for some events.
He urged the city and county not to relegate themselves to "minor-league status."
Marlins officials have been touring the country looking for a relocation site, with stops already in Portland, Ore., and San Antonio. The Miami Herald has reported that the team has plans to also visit Charlotte, Monterrey, Mexico, and northern New Jersey.
Reese said he has been talking to a vice chairman with the Marlins for about 30 days. He said he's also talking to other pro baseball teams, which he declined to name.
Most of the skepticism of Major League Baseball's chances in Charlotte rest on its population. Charlotte's metro area, including Rock Hill and Concord, has a population of 1.4 million. That's smaller than the 1.5 million people in the Milwaukee area, the smallest major-league market.
Because of Major League Baseball's economics, teams require big populations to drive ticket revenue, sports marketers say. Teams must pack fans into the stadium over at least 81 home games per season -- about double the number of NBA home games -- and most of those would fall on weekdays. That means a Charlotte team would need to draw locally, not from across the region.