The North Carolina Football Club draws thousands of fans to WakeMed Soccer Park, but Cary leaders say they’re not worried about the club’s proposal to build a new stadium in downtown Raleigh.
The club’s potential move could free up field time for other sports and college tournaments that attract spectators who stay in hotels and eat at local restaurants, said Mayor Harold Weinbrecht.
“We have heavy demand for that park,” Weinbrecht said. “If they left, there are other sports like rugby and lacrosse that could move in. It wouldn’t be an empty stadium, that’s for sure.”
NCFC announced last month that it wants to build a $150 million soccer stadium on state-owned property on Peace Street in downtown Raleigh, about 8 miles from the WakeMed Soccer Park. The Cary park has been home to the club, formerly called the RailHawks, since 2007.
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A Raleigh stadium isn’t a sure thing. The Triangle is competing with 11 others cities for four spots in Major League Soccer’s upcoming expansion.
Even if NCFC succeeds in wooing the league, the club has indicated it won’t completely cut ties with Cary. WakeMed Soccer Park could serve as the club’s training base and also host youth games and the women’s team, North Carolina Courage.
Club representatives also have mentioned the possibility of developing WakeMed Soccer Park into an elite national training facility to attract U.S. Soccer, William Davis, Cary’s sports venues manager, wrote in an email.
At one point, NCFC considered expanding at the Cary stadium, which has 10,000 seats. Billie Redmond, a property consultant working with the club, said it picked the downtown Raleigh site in part because MLS prefers centrally located stadiums in urban settings.
The proposed stadium in Raleigh would have 22,000 seats.
WakeMed Soccer Park opened on state-owned land off of East Chatham Street in Cary in 2002. The $16.4 million stadium was a partnership between Wake County and the Capital Area Soccer League. Cary took over operations in 2004.
Last year, the park generated about $711,00 in revenue for the town.
NCFC, then the RailHawks, signed a three-year lease at WakeMed Soccer Park in May 2016, with the option to add another two years. For the 2016 season, the team paid a base rent of $105,000 to use the field up to 700 hours and for 22 games. It also has access to locker rooms, storage and office space.
Rent will increase 3 percent every year, and the team could pay up to $148,000 per year to use other park facilities, like meeting spaces.
The team has averaged 700 hours per year of field time at WakeMed Soccer Park, Davis said. Those hours are mostly during the day and don’t take time away from potential evening or weekend events.
Thousands of Cary residents participate in local league play and we have to balance that with the economic impact of bringing in tournaments.
William Davis, Cary’s sports venues manager
But in order to maintain the grass fields, foot traffic must be limited to 450 hours a year per field.
Any freed-up field time would allow the town to attract more tournaments or sports like lacrosse, rugby and Ultimate Frisbee, Weinbrecht said. Six to eight tournaments use Cary’s soccer fields, and more could be added if NCFC builds a stadium in Raleigh.
Regional and national tournaments for the NCAA and ACC that draw teams from outside the Triangle can have a bigger economic impact than a NCFC game, which mostly draws local fans.
Weinbrecht said hotels are full when the annual NCAA men’s and women’s College Cups are held in Cary. The Men’s College Cup has been held four of the last 13 years and will return in 2019 and 2021. The Women’s College Cup has been held seven of the last 15 years and will return in 2018 and 2020.
For college tournaments, the town recovers its expenses and sometimes collects a profit.
WakeMed Soccer Park also hosts local leagues.
“A few more tournaments can be added but we don’t want to negatively impact local league play,” Davis said. “Thousands of Cary residents participate in local league play and we have to balance that with the economic impact of bringing in tournaments.”
More field time would also allow the town to meet demand for practice space. In the fall of 2014, 15,000 field rental hours were requested for all of the town’s multipurpose fields, but the town was only able to book about 5,000 hours.
“There is a strong need for field space,” Davis said.
Over the years, Cary has made several improvements to WakeMed Soccer Park using town money and hotel occupancy tax grants. Some of the work, including field renovations, benefited everyone who uses the stadium, while other projects were mostly for large-scale college tournaments and events. One such improvement was the installation of 3,000 additional seats.
Weinbrecht said Cary didn’t lobby NCFC to keep the club in town. But he said officials pointed out to the team’s ownership that a new stadium in Cary would fit in nicely with the high-density, multiuse “eastern gateway” concept the town has planned for an 800-acre area near WakeMed Soccer Park.
Apex Mayor Lance Olive, a serious soccer fan, made an appeal to the club on Twitter in January. He drew its attention to a vacant tract of land near the interchange of the Triangle Expressway and U.S. 1 planned as part of a long-delayed mega-development known as Veridea.
“Not every stadium has to be downtown,” Olive said earlier this year. “In Charlotte, the Panthers put themselves right downtown, but it’s also a challenge to get to when you’re driving there from outside the city. The New England Patriots, for example, got out of Boston because it was easier to get to Foxboro.”
The earliest a Raleigh stadium could be built is 2020. So at least for a while, NCFC and its owner, Steve Malik, have a place for the team to call home.
“That’s not going to happen overnight,” Weinbrecht said. “That’s going to take some time, and so I’m thinking he’s got to find a place – in the meantime at least – a place to practice.”
For now, Weinbrecht hopes the club will continue to draw fans to Cary.
“We want them to succeed in whatever they do,” he said.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan