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Charlotte voters reject arena project

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Now that voters have defeated a $342 million package of sports and cultural projects that would have brought a new downtown arena for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, no one is certain what happens next.

"The Hornets have got a business decision to make, and so does the NBA," said city councilman Rod Autrey, who supported the package. "I think the NBA will have to be patient and give us one more shot, but we're going to have to remain active."

To Autrey and another council member, Lynn Wheeler, that means work must begin right away on another arena referendum, perhaps as soon as this fall.

After defeating the non-binding referendum Tuesday, opponents suggested such a move would not be wise.

"I'm hoping this council would not revisit the arena," said Charles Held, co-chairman of the group Charlotteans Opposed to Sports Taxes. "It should be pushed over to the private sector."

Whether they supported the package or opposed it, Tuesday's outcome sent a strong message to Charlotte's elected officials.

"I hope the Hornets stay in Charlotte," Mayor Pat McCrory said after the package was defeated by nearly 15,000 votes. "The voters sent a strong negotiating stance that this proposal was not acceptable."

The vote was 57,405 against the package, or 57 percent, to 42,759 in favor (43 percent). Voter turnout was 30 percent.

In all, seven projects were included in the package, but the one grabbing all the attention was the $205 million sports arena promoted by supporters as the only way to keep the Hornets from skipping town.

"I believe we were very successful in casting this as an arena vote, and the public understood it," Held said.

Supporters argued that the NBA team, which claims it is losing $1 million a month, would move to another city without a new arena.

Hornets co-owner Ray Wooldridge issued a brief statement through a spokesman that thanked the city council for holding the referendum, but left most questions unanswered.

"We are thrilled with the season we had this year and are already looking toward next year's season," the statement said.

Opponents said city residents have other priorities besides pro sports.

"People are concerned about a living wage and affordable housing in this city and not an arena," said Donnie Garris, a Baptist minister and spokesman for the group Helping Empower Local People, which also opposed the referendum.

The package also would have provided funds for a new downtown minor-league baseball stadium, the Mint Museum, the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Discovery Place science museum, Carolina Theater and Theatre Charlotte.

Voters were asked if they wanted to commit hotel and car rental taxes and other fees to help finance the cost of building the arena.

During the campaign, supporters insisted the Hornets needed a more modern facility with lucrative luxury boxes. Opponents — outspent in the public relations campaign by a wide margin — argued the plan was a taxpayer subsidy of wealthy private businessmen.

Wooldridge and co-owner George Shinn remained largely silent on the referendum, though Wooldridge had been involved in negotiations between the club and the city if the arena package was approved.

Critics said the true cost of the package was closer to $850 million, and property taxes would need to be increased to pay off the debt. They also said the sports arena was deliberately packaged with the cultural projects because it could never pass on its own.

Arena supporters said revenue from hotel and car rental taxes would easily cover most of the city's share of the cost to build and operate the new arena. The specter of a property tax increase was meant only to frighten senior citizens and others who can't afford it, they said.