Morrisville will likely have to rally to keep its dream for a $14 million ice rink and indoor athletic complex alive.
A Wake County advisory board has recommended against giving developer Jeff Ammons about $3 million in tourism-related grant money to build the sports facility that could serve as a practice rink for the Carolina Hurricanes professional hockey team.
The board also recommended denial of funding for the North Main Athletic Complex in Holly Springs, which had applied for some of the grant money.
A total of 10 projects applied for money from a $6 million pool. The board recommended approval for one – Naismith Legacy Park, a basketball complex that doesn’t yet have a set location.
The remaining $4.5 million should stay in reserves for future projects, according to the panel.
But Wake County Commissioners want to give the top four finalists another shot to make their case, so there’s still hope for the projects in Morrisville and Holly Springs.
Next month, leaders of each of the projects will give a presentation to commissioners showing how their projects will attract out-of-town residents and benefit the county economically.
In the meantime, Holly Springs is moving forward with or without the county money to build the $8.2 million North Main Athletic Complex.
But the $2.8 million the town is requesting from the county would help build some additional amenities at the planned 1,800-seat complex, said Town Manager Chuck Simmons.
The town would like to install an upgraded scoreboard, a concession stand and maybe better lighting. It could also build locker rooms for the stadium during phase two of construction, rather than later on.
“If we could get a decision within the next month, it would be really beneficial,” Simmons said.
But in Morrisville, the future of the ice-rink complex likely depends on the grant money.
Ammons, who opened The Factory, a sports multiplex in Wake Forest, has said he won’t move forward with the Morrisville project without the help from Wake County.
Morrisville Town Council members said the panel’s recommendation was confusing. The ice-rink project ranked highest based on the criteria released by the county.
It scored 2,319, while Naismith scored 2,164. The Holly Springs project scored 1,731.
The top-three criteria are economic impact, unmet need and capital budget plan. Based on those, the Morrisville project was the second-highest.
Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman said he didn’t understand the panel’s reasoning for holding back $4.5 million.
“That’s an excellent return on investment?” he asked. “Not doing anything?”
The grant money comes from prepared-food and hotel taxes and goes into Wake County’s major facilities fund. The county can only spend the money for capital projects that bring in out-of-town tourists who will stay at local hotels.
Morrisville Councilman Michael Schlink also questioned the process of determining which projects would make the cut.
“It’s like it was done behind closed doors,” he said.
Hill Carrow, CEO of the Triangle Sports Commission, called the panel’s recommendation “unusual.” He has helped Cary get some of the grant funding in the past and is helping Ammons and Morrisville this go-around.
“I’ve never seen it done the way it was done this time,” Carrow said. “It was extremely staff driven.”
Morrisville is the third-largest contributor to the hotel and prepared-food tax fund, the source for the grant money, but it has never applied to receive any funds. The two largest contributors, Raleigh and Cary, have received funding in the past.
‘All of them sound great’
Commissioners Vice Chairman Tony Gurley supported the committee’s recommendation to give money to the basketball project and keep $4.5 million in reserve.
“I think potential for that project is fantastic for this area,” Gurley said. “It’s one project that really does meet our goals. It brings in people from outside the county.”
A planned basketball camp for fifth-graders would bring in kids from all over the country and the world, Gurley said.
The other projects would simply add to the county’s existing recreational inventory, he said. Wake already has an ice rink and baseball fields.
Commissioner Paul Coble was among those pushing to hear from the four finalists.
“The committee did what we asked them to do,” Coble said. “Our No. 1 priority is economic return, and is it serving a new need. ... We need more insight.”
“On the surface, all of them sound great,” Coble continued. “They are all good projects in their own context. We need to decide do they do those two things: put heads in beds and people in restaurants.”