Charlotte has changed a lot in the past 83 years, and yet, in the heart of it all, the American Legion Memorial Stadium sits frozen in time.
Built in 1936 and named in honor of Mecklenburg soldiers who served in World War I, the stadium has been a popular destination for recreational activities, concerts and community events. Now, it’s getting some well-deserved renovations.
Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project on Sept. 20.
Crews will begin working in late September and are expected to finish in spring 2021. The restorations will cost $35 million and will be funded entirely by the county.
Once finished, the new stadium will have a seating capacity of 10,500, allowing it to accommodate a wide range of activities, including professional and amateur sporting events. The Charlotte Independence soccer team will leave the Matthews Sportsplex to play there.
But don’t expect the stadium to be unrecognizable when it’s done getting a facelift.
“It has a tremendous history we intend to preserve,” County Manager Dena Diorio said.
A few key elements are staying the same, like the name American Legion Memorial Stadium, the rock wall that surrounds the base of the field and the original ticket booth. There will, however, be updated plumbing, concessions and a new scoreboard. The existing stands will also be demolished so that a wider field can be built.
“It’s a really good mix of preserving the old, but making it available for the future,” Diorio said. “It shows how much the county values not only the venue, but the veterans. We appreciate everything they’ve done for this community and we want to continue to embrace and recognize them.”
For Joe Reale, a vice commander in the North Carolina department of the American Legion, keeping the name means everything.
“It lets people know we exist and helps spread the message about what we do,” he said.
Reale said most people have little interaction with the military aside from what they read or see on TV and in movies, which is mostly about combat. He said the American Legion is actually an integral part of the community. The nonprofit gives out college scholarships, supports other veteran charities and is big on volunteering. Many members provide assistance at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.
Nationally, the American Legion lobbies on behalf of interests of veterans and service members, including support for benefits, pensions and the Veterans Health Administration.
“We are not a bunch of old men sitting in a smoke-filled room drinking whiskey,” Reale said.
For many, renovations to Memorial Stadium have been a long time coming.
Brian Cox, an at-large representative on the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Commission, touched on the significance of the project during the Sept. 20 groundbreaking.
“I’ve always thought people who were natives in the South had a strong sense of place and Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center are part of that sense of place,” he said.
The venue has hosted thousands of community events, sports games and concerts, including Queen City Battle of the Bands, over the past 83 years. Cox said it’s likely every resident in Mecklenburg County has a memory or shared experience there.
“I wonder sometimes if those stone walls in Memorial Stadium that we view as being somewhat iconic, if they could talk, what would they say?” he asked.
Cox told attendees at the groundbreaking about a man who once asked to spread his father’s ashes at Memorial Stadium. His father had been a student at Central High School and played football there. After getting the approval, Cox recalled watching the ceremony on the field from an office window.
“That’s how important these places that we often lose in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are to us,’’’ he said. “So I’m thrilled today to know that Memorial Stadium is going to have a second life.”