Charlotte Observer
9:51 am
Tue February 12, 2013

Charlotte Mayor's Letter Started Discussion With Carolina Panthers On Stadium Renovations

A panoramic view of Bank of America Stadium taken from John Belk Freeway. This photo is comprised of several photos stitched together.
Credit Mark Hames / Charlotte Observer

  The city’s plan to contribute $125 million toward renovating Bank of America stadium started with a letter Mayor Anthony Foxx sent to the team last September, Carolina Panthers president Danny Morrison said Monday.

During the past year, the football team had commissioned studies on possible renovations to the 17-year-old stadium. The city had been part of some meetings with the Panthers, but had received no request for aid.

Foxx’s letter raised the prospect of city investment in the project, Morrison said, leading to three months of private negotiations and debate.

Last week, the city announced a tentative $143.75 million plan to help pay for the stadium renovations, as well as ongoing maintenance and game-day traffic control.

In an interview Monday with Observer reporters and editors, Morrison shared details of the renovation and the talks with city and state leaders on how to pay for it.

The final details of the $250 million renovation are still being worked out. Morrison said main features include adding escalators to help fans reach upper levels, installing new video boards and other technology upgrades, and improving club and suite areas.

A major component of financing of the renovations relies on help from the N.C. General Assembly. The team and city are asking state lawmakers for a 1 percent hike to the prepared food and beverage tax in the city, as well as $62.5 million in state money for the renovations.

On Wednesday, Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble plans to head to Raleigh to talk about the funding plan. Morrison said the team also intends to hold more formal discussions with state legislative leaders.

Morrison said the Panthers have been a “proven investment” for the city and state. He said the team has generated some $215 million in property, income and other taxes. The team and city also have pointed to a study showing the team has an annual economic impact of $636 million.

“I think we’re a proven investment and we’ve been good corporate citizens for the state and for the local community,” he said.

But the idea of taxpayer investment in the renovations has not been welcomed by all, and some state lawmakers have indicated that the request for money could face a tough fight.

House Speaker Thom Tillis has said he cannot support direct money for the renovations, but said it could support the city’s request for a tax hike. A spokesman said Monday that Tillis currently had no further comment on the issue.

Letter to Jerry Richardson

The mid-September letter from Foxx to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson came shortly after the city had finished hosting the Democratic National Convention. It also followed word that the mayor of Los Angeles, which is in the hunt for its own football franchise, had met with Richardson.

Foxx said he and the city had been aware that the Panthers had been talking about stadium improvements. He said he also had gotten media inquiries about whether the city was negotiating with the team.

“I felt like we do in any situation where we have an existing business we want to keep, that we open conversations,” Foxx said.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that we want to engage in a way that’s responsive to some of these issues,” Foxx said. “(But) I don’t think we just came to them and said ‘We’d throw money at you.’ ”

Foxx said he sent the September letter because “if there was going to be a dialogue, it needed to happen through official channels.”

In the letter, Foxx wrote that he couldn’t “unilaterally commit resources” to the stadium project, but believed the city had an interest in the team’s long-term presence and success. Later in September, the City Council formally directed staff to begin discussions with the Panthers about money for the project.

Negotiations evolved behind closed doors over the next three months. The Panthers said those meetings were private because it was about an economic development matter, which North Carolina law allows to be negotiated in closed session. When the city and team reached terms, the private deal was made public.

A key part of the proposal called for the team to commit to staying in Charlotte in exchange for city money.

The idea of the “tether” gained support because of the 76-year-old Richardson’s direction that the team be sold within two years of his death.

The city and Panthers staff had proposed a plan where the team committed to staying in the city for at least 10 years. But the City Council wanted a longer, 15-year promise, Morrison said.

“It was probably one of the only things I wanted to insist on,” said city councilman David Howard. “We wanted to make sure we kept the team tethered to the community as long as we could, and that we were not still paying beyond that 15 years.”

Richardson agreed to the longer deal, the only time Morrison said the owner was involved in the negotiations.

State support essential

As talks progressed with the city, the Panthers also approached state leaders about the prospect of aid.

Team officials held preliminary discussion with several leaders, including Gov. Pat McCrory, Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger, two more members of the Mecklenburg delegation and Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

Morrison characterized those talks as “well received” and respectful. “They all recognized the importance and the value of the Panthers to North Carolina,” he said.

He said leaders plan to continue discussions now that the deal with the city has been formalized. He said the state support is important, and the city said it “acknowledges that the receipt of these state funds is an essential element of the partnership with the Panthers.”

There is no timetable on when the Panthers aid could come up for a vote.

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