The Carolina Panthers’ request for $125 million from Charlotte taxpayers feels like a kick to the gut. It’s a huge amount of money. It’s tone-deaf to the times. It suggests that overpriced athletes have more value than underpaid police officers.
And it’s something, unfortunately, the city needs to seriously consider doing.
Consider doing, not sprint to like a 10-year-old with Super Bowl tickets. Not without asking a lot of questions about what the right amount would be, where the money would come from and what ground rules could be put on it.
But it looks like we’re too late making that suggestion. With police barring reporters and the public from getting anywhere near, the Charlotte City Council voted 7-2 Monday night to support the request, sources tell the Observer’s Steve Harrison. That’s a vote to hand over $125 million in taxes to an NFL team for stadium renovations without giving the public a moment to make even a peep. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson needed one of those big red Staples push-buttons: “That was easy.”
Sure, the council is expected to take a public vote for show, and the proposal is contingent on the legislature’s approval. But the City Council let the Panthers march it inside the 20 before the public even knew we had kicked off.
Harrison reports that the City Council backs doubling the prepared foods and beverage tax, from 1 percent to 2 percent. That would push the total sales tax on a restaurant meal to 9.25 percent.
That gives us indigestion, for a few reasons:
• Richardson and the Panthers could likely afford to pay for stadium improvements themselves. Forbes values the franchise at over $1 billion.
• Little is known about how the Panthers would use the money, because they haven’t spelled it out. But escalators and fancier video boards are among the perks the Panthers want. That’s not exactly repairing a crumbling foundation.
• Charlotte taxpayers are under a bit of strain already. They’ve been hammered by a stubbornly bad economy, a botched property revaluation and a 2 percent pay cut from a higher federal payroll tax, and they’re staring at probable higher city property taxes to pay for a capital improvement program that could exceed $900 million.
Given all that, you’d think $125 million would at least buy a conversation with the public footing the bill. But Richardson and team president Danny Morrison weren’t talking Monday night, and at a Tuesday news conference to introduce the new general manager, the team said it would answer no questions about the deal. City Council member Beth Pickering, a Democrat, said a public debate could have led to “mis-impressions.” In other words: Trust us, dear public, but we don’t trust you.
So why consider it? Well, $125 million is not a lot compared with other NFL stadium renovations. Also, two words: Los Angeles. Or any other city looking to entice an NFL team. Richardson, a heart transplant recipient, is aging and has no publicly known succession plan after firing his two sons. Play chicken with the Panthers and they could pack their bags – and that’s no bluff.
Some residents would say let them go. But that underestimates how much the Panthers mean to Charlotte and the region. They bring national cachet, and some amount of direct economic impact. Their departure would leave a giant hole in our city and its psyche.
Some may consider it blackmail, but this kind of partnership was one of the perks that Charlotte knew came with joining the NFL fraternity. It’s an appropriate use of government money to protect or enhance the overall public good, and preventing a Panthers move would do that.
The city should be asking a lot of questions before diving in. Is $125 million as low as we can go and still dissuade a move? Could the tax hike be smaller and still raise enough? Could we get a legal commitment from the Panthers that they’ll stay put for some number of years?
It’s not a fun conversation, but it’s one the city needs to have. With the Panthers – and with the public.
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