CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Less than four months after the Charlotte Hornets received NBA permission to move to New Orleans, the city is ready to begin negotiations with the league that could result in a new team.
City manager Pam Syfert was given permission to negotiate an arena lease with the league at a marathon City Council meeting that ended early Tuesday.
City spokeswoman Julie Hill said the city hoped to open negotiations with the league within two to three weeks, though Syfert had yet to communicate with NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik.
City Council member Lynn Wheeler said no council members objected to giving Syfert permission to negotiate.
The council already has approved a plan to build a $231 million downtown arena to replace the outmoded Charlotte Coliseum if a major-league tenant can be found.
And NBA owners are likely to approve granting an expansion team to one of at least three ownership groups interested in Charlotte if an arena lease can be negotiated.
Through Hill, Syfert said she would not comment on discussions with the league.
"Just in order to keep the negotiations in a place that allows the manager to accomplish the council's objectives and get the best deal for the city, it was determined that (they) would be kept private," Hill said.
NBA spokesman Tim Frank said Granik would not comment until negotiations actually begin, probably within a month.
"This is something our owners think is important, to give Charlotte another chance, so we want to look at it," Frank said.
Hornets' owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge received permission to move their team to Louisiana after years of fruitless attempts to win approval for a new arena with the luxury boxes and premium seating they said the Hornets needed to be financially competitive in the NBA.
In June 2001, voters rejected a proposed, city-funded downtown arena.
The City Council approved the current arena proposal in February after leaders of Charlotte's three largest corporations - Bank of America, Wachovia and Duke Energy - offered to front the city $100 million for construction. That will be paid back with city-owned land and revenue from the new arena. By then, the Hornets were New Orleans-bound.
If the city and league can agree on a lease for a new arena, the NBA would present the agreement and an expansion fee - expected to be between $200 and $300 million - to potential owners.
Boston businessman Steve Belkin heads one group that has expressed interest in a Charlotte franchise, with Hall of Famer Larry Bird to serve as the club's director of basketball operations. Others in the mix are Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson and a group headed by Miami Heat co-owner Bob Sturges.
Belkin has said he would like to see a franchise granted in time for the team to begin play in 2003-04. A new arena would not be ready until 2004 at the earliest.