The Carolina Panthers are working on a plan to refurbish 16-year-old Bank of America Stadium, which will likely include tens of millions of dollars for new video boards, escalators to the upper bowl and less glamorous fixes like new HVAC systems.
Team president Danny Morrison, who expects the long-range plan to be finished by the end of the season, declined to say in an interview Wednesday whether the team will seek public support for the renovations.
But taxpayer support is common for NFL teams, and some Charlotte elected officials are signaling they are open to using public money to help the team.
Democratic City Council member James Mitchell, who chairs the economic development committee, said he supports helping the Panthers financially.
“We have established a model – whether it’s the Bobcats or the Knights – that we will invest or participate in some way,” Mitchell said. “I won’t shy away from that.”
Mitchell said the team hasn’t “made an ask yet.”
“But if it’s a wise investment, I can support it,” said Mitchell, who was instrumental in persuading fellow council members to support an $8 million subsidy for the Charlotte Knights minor-league baseball team, which is building a new stadium uptown.
Mayor Anthony Foxx said this year he was “ambivalent” about helping the Knights financially. But he appears to be open about helping the city’s NFL team, even though that would likely require far more public money.
Foxx sent a letter to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson on Tuesday inviting him to “discuss (stadium renovation plans) with the city council.”
He added in the letter: “I cannot unilaterally commit resources but I do feel we have an interest in the long-term presence and success of the Carolina Panthers franchise you have built.”
Morrison declined to say how much the team expects the renovations to cost.
Kansas City recently finished a $375 million rehab of its stadium, built in the early 1970s. Bank of America Stadium opened in 1996, and its renovation is unlikely to be as significant or costly.
“We appreciate the mayor reaching out,” Morrison said. “Like every master plan, you to try to put the plan in place. And how much you can do is dependent on the funding you have.”
The Panthers have long said they felt taxpayers got a good deal when the stadium was built.
Through the sale of personal seat licenses (PSLs), owner Jerry Richardson paid for all of the bricks and mortar of the $248 million stadium. Taxpayers contributed $60 million for land and infrastructure improvements.
The city’s NBA team, the Bobcats, plays in Time Warner Cable Arena, which was built entirely with public money.
“The public share in Charlotte was on the low end (for the NFL),” said Kurt Badenhausen, a senior editor at Forbes who writes about sports business. “That’s a tremendous deal, particularly in a small market.”
Renovations of existing stadiums can “run the gamut,” Badenhausen said.
Since Bank of America Stadium opened, there has been a rush to either build new stadiums or renovate existing ones. There are now only a handful of teams with stadiums older than the Panthers’ that haven’t had a major overall. Among them: Atlanta’s Georgia Dome; Candlestick Park in San Francisco; O.co Coliseum in Oakland; Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego; and the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
The Vikings are getting a new stadium in Minnesota, a new stadium is being built for the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara and the Falcons are angling for a new stadium in Atlanta.
Morrison said the team is pleased with what he calls Bank of America Stadium’s “classic lines” – a reference to the stadium’s bowl shape and its singular purpose of hosting football games.
He said there would be no major design changes to the stadium, which rules out any sort of retractable roof.
He said Richardson is concerned about a fan who bought a PSL in the upper deck when he or she was 55. Now they are over 70, and they are having to walk up the ramps to get to their seat.
“That really bothers him,” Morrison said.
The team will likely install escalators to whisk fans to the upper bowl, he said.
Morrison also said the team would likely install larger video boards. Since the Dallas Cowboys opened a new stadium three years ago with a massive, 60-yard TV, other teams have been scrambling to catch up.
“Technology is always changing,” he said. “When you put in a video board it’s already out of date.”
Kansas City, Mo.-based Populous is leading the design team for the stadium. Morrison said much of the work would be on “the things that don’t show up,” such as chillers and HVAC systems.
The team spends about $10 million a year operating and maintaining the stadium. Morrison said the Panthers have spent $50 million on renovations since the stadium opened.
Badenhausen speculated the team would likely spend money enhancing club areas and restaurants, as well.
“New escalators don’t generate new revenue,” he said.
While Mitchell and Foxx appear to support public help for stadium improvements, any subsidy would likely be far larger than this summer’s help for the Knights’ uptown stadium.
Republican council member Warren Cooksey voted for city help for uptown baseball. He said his position is to take a “wait and see” approach with the Panthers.
His biggest concern is how would the city pay for it.
Assuming renovations would cost at least $250 million, the public contribution might be at least $80 million.
Cooksey said that much financial help requires a significant shift in the city’s priorities. The money for baseball, he said, was easily found in reserves in the city’s hospitality taxes, used for tourism.
The city’s Convention Center fund has some money available after some debt payments have been retired. But that money – which comes from a 3 percent hotel/motel tax and a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages – might not be an option.
State law said that money must be used for the convention center or for “tourism promotion.”
In addition, others are already eyeing that money for other things.
Democratic council member Michael Barnes has floated the possibility of using hospitality taxes to build a streetcar.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority’s chief executive, Tom Murray, has said that a taxpayer-supported 1,000-room hotel would help the city grow its convention business.
But the biggest hurdle is that the city is working to pass a long-range capital plan of nearly $1 billion that will almost certainly include a property tax increase.
An effort to pass a capital plan failed in June, in part because Foxx said a scaled-back plan approved by six council members wasn’t ambitious enough.
Foxx has spoken repeatedly about the need for reinvesting in the city’s less-affluent neighborhoods.
Mitchell said City Manager Curt Walton has had some preliminary meetings this year with the Panthers. When asked by the Observer whether the city has begun exploring how the city might be able to pay for stadium improvements, Walton said no. He said the team hasn’t asked the city for money.
Democratic council member John Autry voted in favor of the city helping the Knights in June. He said he hasn’t thought about giving financial support to the Panthers.
“I’m not going to say no, I’m not going to say yes,” Autry said. “There seems to be a lot more potential with baseball for what it would do with those parking lots around it. With football, you are talking about 10 games a year.”