WILMINGTON — USL to Wilmington, the entrepreneurial group set on bringing a professional soccer team back to the Port City, is now asking the city to borrow its sports stadium.
As reported by Port City Daily last summer, the group announced its intentions to bring a USL League One team to Wilmington by 2024. The goal was to fill a Wilmington Hammerheads-size hole in the city after the professional team disbanded in 2017. Now, USL to Wilmington is trying to use the Hammerhead’s former field, Legion Stadium, until a more permanent spot can be acquired.
READ MORE: Soccer is returning to Wilmington, bringing food, housing and entertainment with it
Managing partner Chris Mumford went before the Wilmington City Council Monday to ask the council to lease Legion Stadium for two or three years, plus fund locker room improvements and allow the group to build a food hall onsite. Because this was the initial ask, lease conditions have yet to be determined.
However, Mumford told council they would need to finalize an agreement before May 31 in order for the team to participate in the next season, first game planned for April 2024.
“I feel like the ask we’re making of the city is commiserate to there’s a lot of upside to bringing a pro team back, bringing that community, hopefully pushing up tax revenues and helping those real estate values surrounding it,” Mumford told council.
However, Legion Stadium is not slated to be the pro team’s permanent home field. The plan is to use the field for two to three years while constructing its own stadium elsewhere in the city.
To PCD in June, Mumford detailed less a stadium and more a community event center for the development. The community-driven vision included a food hall and beer garden, artist spaces, retail, healthcare systems, and even housing. Mumford stated they need 40 to 60 acres of land at minimum to break ground and Legion Stadium is not equipped to meet the team’s needs.
On Wednesday, Mumford told PCD the group was still in search mode for a permanent site.
“There are a couple locations we have in mind, but just all the logistics about getting folks in and out quickly, making sure [there is] electricity, all that, cellular Wi-Fi,” Mumford said. “It’s going to take a while to figure out.”
Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes took issue with Legion Stadium being a short-term solution.
“My biggest concern is if we invest taxpayer money and we subsidize your operation and in two years you’re moving — I think that’s a big concern,” Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes.
Mumford didn’t rule out the possibility of staying at Legion Stadium. Haynes asked if he would do so if financially viable; Mumford said it would be possible if the pro club was financially successful there.
“If we can make Legion work, we’ll make Legion work,” Mumford responded.
He told Port City Daily the real trick will be ensuring the pro team can sustain itself at Legion Stadium, also used for New Hanover County Schools athletics and the Wilmington Sharks. Mumford told council he has been in talks with Legion’s director about avoiding scheduling conflicts.
Aside from leasing the space to USL to Wilmington, Mumford requested the city fund one capital request — locker room improvements, including air conditioning, shower partitions, new carpet and paint and a video screen. He estimated the investment would only be a few thousand dollars.
USL to Wilmington is also asking for the right to place and construct a food hall at the fire tower area, working title Fire Tower Food Hall. Mayor Bill Saffo questioned if the group would bring the soccer team without the food option.
“I don’t think we could close the investor if that’s the case,” Mumford said.
Mumford said the food hall, open year-round, would be the main source of revenue behind ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising. With the food hall, the goal is to be financially independent in five years.
USL to Wilmington is envisioning a shipping container complex of food options set up around green space for games and a small stage for local musicians. A large part of the group’s vision is promoting up-and-coming chefs, pulling people from local culinary kitchens or Cape Fear Community College, while incorporating live performances and local art into the space with murals.
While the lease conditions have yet to be decided, council member Luke Waddell expressed concern over allowing the food hall onsite for less than market rate rent, though Mumford didn’t put forth a number.
“The taxpayers [are] essentially footing the bill for this speculative venture,” Waddell said. “On top of that, you’d be putting this food hall in with beer and food and all that, which while again, would be fun, there’s other competing businesses that are having to pay market rate leases.”
Council member Kevin Spears asked about job creation. Mumford stated the facility would create 15 to 20 permanent jobs, to balloon to 60 to 80 temporary jobs on around 18 home game days. While he couldn’t provide a specific wage, Mumford said he is a “big fan of overpaying to avoid turnover” that comes with cheap labor.
Mumford also added the professional players would make between $25,000 to $30,000 per USL league standards. The group would begin recruiting players at the end of this season in October or November.
There’s still no team name or logo, although Mumford said they are planning to host more community feedback opportunities to home in on a name that represents Wilmington’s sense of place.
“We’re really committed to this — making this community asset work for people and it’s gonna take some time, but I really like it,” Mumford said.
He shared that after the council presentation, city staff were going to assure a lease with USL to Wilmington, mainly the food hall component, is legally and logistically feasible. Mumford said the city has been helpful and assured they will move as fast as possible to reach a decision by USL to Wilmington’s May deadline.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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