Two years have passed since Gastonia leaders unveiled an ambitious vision for linking downtown with the Loray Mill village, while giving a shot in the arm to a long-suffering pocket of the west end.

The envisioned cornerstone of the Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment District has always been a stadium and events complex that would host a wide range of year-round activities. And while the projected cost of such an anchor for FUSE has previously been hard to pin down, City Council members will get a more concrete figure Monday that will go a long way toward deciding the fate of the overall project.

Last April, when architectural work on the complex was only 30 percent complete, city leaders were told the price of building it could reach $21 million. But officials cautioned against placing too much emphasis on that figure, and instead stressed the need to reserve judgment until the 60 percent completion point.

That time has come.

“At 60 percent, you’re starting to get to a pretty accurate reflection of what the cost will be, because you’re able to dig into a lot of the details on actual design and construction,” said Gastonia Economic Development Director Kristy Crisp.

Too far along to stop?

Council members will hear the latest projections on the cost of the stadium during a 6 p.m. meeting Monday at City Hall.

One of the big questions is whether the city has already put too much into the FUSE effort to suddenly call a halt to it. Since the bold plan was announced in the fall of 2016, the city has spent almost $5.2 million of taxpayer funds on developing the district. That money has gone toward everything from land and building acquisition, demolition and asbestos abatement, to feasibility studies, architectural work, and surveying and engineering fees.

“This project has been about economic development,” said Crisp. “And to this point, a lot of our work have been in preparing the site for development in general. Those expenditures are necessary to any type of project like this.”

Even if the city pulled the plug on everything now, Councilman David Humphries believes the city could focus on selling off the 16 acres of property it acquired for FUSE, and strive to sell it off to private developers for a positive use. He believes a lot of good will have been done even if FUSE doesn’t pan out.

“Throughout this process, we managed to get rid of an eyesore in the Sears buildings and the auto center out there, and the Budget Inn with it being controversial at times,” he said. “Those things were definitely hindering development on the west side, I believe.

“If we have to, we can move on with disposal of the properties for private development and learn from it.”

Councilman Todd Pierceall also believes it’s not too late for the city to pull out, but the information gleaned in Monday’s meeting will be critical.

“I think we’re right at the point of needing to turn back now or going full steam ahead,” he said.

‘Do it right the first time’

If there is still time to reconsider, one key question is what it would take for council members to reverse course. For some, that comes down to what the events complex might cost.

Mayor Walker Reid was elected a year after the city had already begun working on FUSE. But he has become one of its biggest proponents, to the extent that he isn’t as concerned about the figure he’ll see Monday.

“I’m totally in favor of it because I believe in the project, and I believe this kind of synergy is what’s needed for downtown and for Gastonia as a whole,” he said.

Reid said a $21 million price tag wouldn’t scare him. He is more intent on making sure that investment would buy a facility that would last the city for many years, support the types of events Gastonia envisions attracting, and stand out as a destination that will truly draw people from the surrounding region.

The worst thing the city could do would be to pay millions of dollars for something that ultimately falls short and doesn’t get anyone excited, Reid said. He referenced missteps he and other council members made prior to 2011 in planning the downtown conference center, such as not ensuring that it would have a hotel right beside it.

“I hope we don’t make the same mistake with the FUSE project,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we need to do it right the first time. If it’s $20 million to make it a world-class facility, that’s what we need to do.”

What price is too high?

When then-City Manager Ed Munn pitched the FUSE concept two years ago, he said the hope was that the city could build the stadium and events center for around $13 million to $15 million. But that was well before the city got into the details of what it might actually want in such a complex.

“Folks have gotten stuck on that $13 million figure, and that was a goal, not an estimate,” said Humphries. “We had no idea the cost of materials would be, and everything else involved. I kind of wish that figure hadn’t been put out there, because too many people have focused on that.”

Pierceall said even from the beginning, he never thought the city would be able to build such a facility for less than $20 million. So as long as the price can be kept in that ballpark, it won’t cause him too much sticker shock.

“I don’t think we need to build a bare-bones facility just to say we kept it really cheap, because I don’t think that will make it successful,” he said. “But I don’t think we need to go all out and spend millions and millions just to say we have the nicest facility on the East Coast. I think we need to build what’s appropriate for our community, for the budget we can allow.”

One thing that city leaders believe will help soften the financial blow is donations from the private sector, helping to fulfill the mission of making FUSE a public-private partnership. Capital Development Services – a Winston-Salem-based fundraising consulting firm – was recently hired to assess what the city’s confidence level should be in securing private contributions from benefactors. It determined the city can feel confident at this point about bringing in $2.5 million in donations, and that figure could rise as the city provides more details about its plans for FUSE.

“Basically what I got from that study is that people are interested in contributing,” said Reid. “They just want to know more details, and hopefully after Monday, we can give those to them.”

Public opinion still a mixed bag

Ask people who live and work in and around Gastonia about their opinion on the solvency of the FUSE concept, and you’ll get a mixed bag of reactions. Some people like the creativity of reinventing that area just west of downtown, and they are inspired by what the project’s success could mean for the city. Others see it as a pie-in-the-sky vision that has yet to prove it would be a wise investment.

James Cook said he understands the city’s and the community’s desire to transform the west side of town.

“But I think the city should be especially careful in how much it gets involved as a catalyst when tax dollars are at risk,” he said. “FUSE may be a wonderful initiative to spur additional growth and serve as an enjoyable venue for various activities for years to come. But the rising cost estimates and reluctance in private development to commit a larger share makes me question the long-term sustainability of the concept.”

Karen Turner, on the other hand, is more of a believer. She said the city’s west side has been neglected for too long, and she sees FUSE as something that could not only pay dividends there, but also have a larger regional benefit for the western part of Gaston County.

“There have been some positive things going on the last few years with the revitalization of the Loray Mill and the mill village,” she said. “So I think FUSE is the most natural next step to continue with what’s been started.”

Cook said if private developers were promoting the project, fronting more of their own money and that of investors, it would help his faith. He also would like to see the stadium anchored by a well-supported, regional-level sports team, with more drawing power than the Gastonia Grizzlies summer league baseball franchise.

“But there is nothing close to that enthusiasm in this case,” he said.

Turner and others like her, however, agree that sometimes it takes spending money to make money. She sees FUSE as becoming a draw similar to what the N.C. Music Factory has been in Charlotte.

“We could have a Fillmore-type feel right here in Gastonia, and I’d most certainly rather stay in town than have to go to Charlotte all the time for entertainment,” she said. “Whatever needs to be spent should be spent (to build the complex). That’s the only way we’re going to get it right.”

You can reach Michael Barrett at 704-869-1826 or on Twitter @GazetteMike.