As a Triangle man, Charlotte is one of those distant friends I only see once in a while notice all the subtle differences. Oh, nice haircut! I see you’ve lost some weight!
The first I looked comprehensively at the city was January 2009, ahead of the Panthers’ awful playoff game against Arizona. We had an awesome time at Mert’s Soul Food (I hope it’s still around) before sadness happened.
But my most intimate experience with Charlotte was nearly three years ago in May of 2012. My girlfriend at the time, whose name was also Kelsey, and I traveled to a house off Tuckaseegee Road where she had volunteered for a summer. It was a charity house, aiding the community around it by organizing book fairs and free dinners to bring the impoverished together. The house was also religious but that was almost secondary, though we did attend a very early Bible reading.
The experience completed my transition away from anti-spiritualism, making me realize the profound effect faith could have in the lives of those who had so little. That weekend was a journey unto its own, but its relevance here was how close one of the most impoverished areas in the county was to the extremely affluent Uptown area. The townhouse where Cam Newton and Michael Jordan live was within walking distance (people who know me will understand that walking distance differs drastically from to normal people. I would say this was normal people’s walking distance).
Just three years ago, Charlotte seemed like pockets of affluence sprinkled amidst destitution. It’s an interesting sociological case study but not one that’s particularly MLS-friendly.
It was always assumed that the inevitable North Carolina MLS franchise would come to the Triangle. Most of the NC-based (of which there are many, no non-MLS state has more) MLS players went through one of UNC, Duke, or NC State. The area is both affluent and tech-savvy. The facilities and the academies already exist. Many a USWNT game has been played where the RailHawks call home.
The RailHawks themselves already have six competitive wins over MLS sides. More impressively, they have fewer losses. WakeMed Soccer Park, home of the RailHawks, was recently expanded to hold 10,000 people.
And yet, the Triangle sees itself falling behind to a market whose lone ambitious professional side has yet to take the field.
The Triangle’s problem is something of a microcosm of the entire state. There’s a lot of talent and will there, but it’s very spread out. Getting from one talent-laden Raleigh high school in Broughton to another in Leesville Road is a pain in the ass, and virtually impossible without a car. Raleigh has a downtown, with soccer pubs, coffee shops, and a couple of neat parks, but few ways to get there. Downtown does serve as the spoke to the city’s transit system, but service is sparse, both in terms of land reached and frequency.
The Triangle itself is surprisingly automobile-dependent for an area that’s supposedly booming in young tech talent, leading me to wonder if only the young tech talent that want to drive go there. That might make a modicum of sense, as literally every other tech haven is overrun with public transportation.
In that kind of environment, PNC Arena and Carter-Finley Stadium are as centrally located as it gets: at least a ten minute drive for most Raleigh residents and a twenty minute drive for those in Durham. A fair balance, no?
Meanwhile, Charlotte has changed drastically in the last few years.
Something clearly happened after Pat McCrory left the mayor’s office in Charlotte for the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh. “People are moving to Charlotte to look for a job. That didn’t happen five years ago,” Charlotte Independence owner Jim McPhilliamy told me in a sit-down interview yesterday. The city became hip. Some neighborhoods gentrified. A light rail is underway and partially functional, and soon it will access all of Uptown’s important stadia, including Memorial.
“The timing is right [in Charlotte], the young millennials that are going to make the team successful are all moving in along the blue line corridor.” A Public Market a la Uptown Minneapolis sprouted up at the end of one of that blue light rail line. A bike share was instituted. Wandering around civilized Charlotte used to feel like a slightly bigger Raleigh. Now it feels like a slightly smaller Minneapolis.
The question, “Why hadn’t anyone invested significantly into Charlotte soccer before?” seems to have a pretty clear answer. The interest, and more importantly the demographics, wasn’t there.
But they’re improving. And now a professional soccer team with bona fide aspirations (I think this is the best way to settle the Charlotte pro soccer nomenclature debate. Charlotte’s had pro soccer for twenty years but not ambitious pro soccer) is here at just the right time.
A centralized stadium has become paramount to many a small market’s expansion efforts. It’s why Portland and Seattle are successful, it’s why Orlando and Minnesota were admitted. The demographics in the Triangle seem to be perfect for an MLS team. Its young affluence increases as more and more tech companies flock to Research Triangle Park. But in an area where the two big areas, Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh, are separated by a minimum of 13 interstate exits, there doesn’t really exist a central location.
“If your population is disaggregated, it becomes really hard to do it,” McPhilliamy said of the Triangle area. And writing as someone who’s always been on the Raleigh side of the Raleigh vs Charlotte debate, he’s right. Downtown Raleigh is growing in prominence, what with the new amphitheater and convention center. But those two are on an island relative to PNC Arena, home of the NHL Hurricanes and NC State basketball. Durham would be a neat soccer candidate if it weren’t so small, the once crime capital of North Carolina has seen its own hipster-driven revitalization around venues like the DPAC, DBAP, and Carolina Theatre. And Carrboro, the hippie capital of Eastern North Carolina, would be the best soccer market of them all if the population weren’t smaller than your average MLS soccer-specific stadium.
The Triangle is a great hypothetical place for an MLS team. But any location would drastically underserve the vast majority of hardcore soccer fans that exist in the area. Who knows, maybe the incoming Google Fiber will prompt the three counties of Orange, Wake, and Durham, to finally work together and build a light rail system that connects the Triangle like it was always meant to.
But until that happens, the Millennial generation I embody will continue to shift their focus to Charlotte. And so too will MLS.
“The city here is building all the infrastructure that makes cities great urban cities. Heck, it was Hugh McColl and a bunch of people 25 years ago that had the vision to do that, but now it’s starting to pay off. That infrastructure that they laid is what’s going to make it possible for us to make a really viable run at MLS.”