By HARRY MINIUM
NORFOLK - Here's a reality check for sports fans who've been holding out hope that Norfolk will become a big league city.
The best arena site is becoming a high-rise. The tax money to build an arena is going to a convention center instead.
This means Norfolk appears to be out of the running to become a major league city, and will be for some time, according to a majority of the City Council.
If an NBA owner approached Mayor Paul Fraim about helping to build an arena, he likely would have to say no.
Funding an arena would require large tax increases, and in the present fiscal and political climate, that's not going to happen, several council members said.
"To find substantial local tax revenues to go into a sports arena, that would be difficult," Fraim said. "We're just not in that sort of position."
Councilman W. Randy Wright, who has been Fraim's strongest council supporter when it comes to major sports, said, "This is an issue that a future City Council will have to grapple with."
Last week, the city approved building a $49 million convention center downtown that will be paid for with a tax increase of several years ago on restaurant meals and hotel rooms.
The council raised those taxes with the intention of using the money for an arena or a convention center. The money will be committed to the convention center for two decades.
Moreover, the city's capital improvements budget is overflowing with projects that will strain spending for perhaps a decade. A new courthouse complex, four new libraries, light rail, a cruise ship terminal, the takeover of the battleship Wisconsin, new school buildings and plans to revitalize four neighborhoods will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.
And the city has a backlog of infrastructure improvements, including an overcrowded jail and deteriorating roads.
This comes at a time when real estate assessments are climbing and taxpayers are clamoring for deep cuts in the real estate tax rate. A meeting on the issue last week attracted more than 700 people.
"I'm not going to support any new projects, be it the NBA or whatever," said Councilman Paul R. Riddick, who has been a proponent of bringing major sports to the city. "We can't afford it."
Months ago, the 4.5-acre site being preserved for an NBA arena, located between Scope and MacArthur Center, was committed to a $150 million development. The Wachovia Center will rise 22 stories and will contain 250,000 square feet of office space, 175 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail space.
Fraim said other arena sites remain, including one adjacent to Harbor Park, but he acknowledged that the Wachovia site was the best.
Last year, the House of Delegates rejected a proposal from Del. Terrie Suit, R-Virginia Beach, to allow Norfolk to capture state taxes generated at an arena to help pay the arena debt. Without those taxes, Fraim said, "there's no way to build an arena."
And because of the state's taxing structure, neighboring cities have nothing to gain by helping Norfolk build such a complex.
The city came close to attracting a major sports team only once - when the NBA's Charlotte Hornets gave Norfolk a serious look before relocating to New Orleans in 2002. There also was a failed regional effort in 1996-97 to bring an NHL expansion team that would have been known as the Hampton Roads Rhinos. And in 2003- 04, a group tried to lure baseball's Montreal Expos, who relocated to Washington.
After that effort failed, the City Council decided to put the tax monies into a convention center. Wright said that was a good decision, because it will generate immediate tax dollars.
Unless the region comes together to build an arena, or another city, such as Virginia Beach, decides to build one, "we won't see an arena here for a decade," Wright said.
That saddens Fraim, who since the 1980s has led efforts to turn Norfolk into an NBA city. He still says an arena is the missing component downtown, and that major sports would draw the region together.
"But everybody has to face the reality of this," he said. "Under the present set of circumstances, it would be very difficult, if not impossible."