The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t moving to downtown Raleigh any time soon, but don’t rule out professional soccer.
Raleigh leaders envision an entertainment and sports center on the southern edge of downtown. It’s part of a 10-year vision for downtown’s future, which also includes hotels, office space and a possible expansion of the Convention Center.
Nothing is set is stone, city officials say. Raleigh doesn’t even own most of the property near Martin Luther King Boulevard and McDowell Street, where city officials would like to see a large venue. But a city rendering of a potential downtown complex raises questions about the future of PNC Arena in west Raleigh.
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The Hurricanes National Hockey League team has a lease with PNC Arena until 2024, said team president Don Waddell.
Meanwhile, the N.C. State University men’s basketball team isn’t interested in moving from PNC to a downtown site either, said Fred Demarest, associate athletics director for communications and marketing.
But Steve Malik, owner of the Carolina RailHawks soccer team, said he thinks the Triangle is ready for Major League Soccer, and downtown Raleigh might be the place to make it happen.
“There are a lot of people interested in where pro soccer is going,” said Malik, who bought the RailHawks, part of the North American Soccer League, last fall.
Malik said he thinks a downtown stadium could attract young people, “suburban soccer families” and immigrants who come from countries where soccer rules.
The RailHawks could possibly transition to the MLS, but that would require a larger stadium, Malik said. The RailHawks’ home, WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, seats about 10,000 fans. Malik said an MLS stadium needs space for at least 20,000 fans.
“I think the answer to it is going to lie in what the fans want,” Malik said. “So we’ll see.”
Transit, parking pluses
Raleigh Planning Director Ken Bowers said a downtown sports venue would have two advantages: easier access to public transit and plenty of parking that could be shared with nearby offices.
Wake County has a $2.3 billion plan for trains and buses, and the downtown plan calls for potential rail near a sports and entertainment venue.
Waddell said it’s become more popular for cities to put sports venues in their downtown areas, partly as a revitalization tool.
However, in downtown Raleigh, he said, parking might be even more troublesome than at PNC Arena, which has sprawling parking lots.
“If they don’t have a good experience, whether it’s at the event or coming or going, they might not come back,” Waddell said.
Potential improvements are in the works for PNC Arena, which has a 20,000-seat capacity and sees 1.5 million visitors a year. Under the plan, which has not yet been approved, the building would get a rooftop restaurant, a new front entrance and more exterior lighting, said Jeff Merritt, executive director of Centennial Authority, which operates the arena.
The area near PNC Arena has not seen much development, unlike downtown Raleigh. Merritt said he expects the area will see growth along the Blue Ridge Road corridor, where the state of North Carolina plans to lease 43 acres for development.
But Merritt said it’s not necessarily a drawback that PNC Arena doesn’t have many neighbors.
“We had Stanley Cup finals a quarter mile from where cows graze,” he said. “There’s some charm to that.”
Now? Or never?
Even so, some say the city needs a downtown sports venue now.
Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, said he thinks PNC Arena is still a great place for the Hurricanes and N.C. State men’s basketball. But he’d like to see soccer downtown, in a venue that could also host Shaw University football.
“I think that’s something that, in theory, would be a good fit for downtown,” Dupree said.
He said Raleigh also needs a multi-purpose sports complex that seats 3,000 to 3,500 people. It could host high school basketball and cheerleading championships, along with youth programs, he said.