The Charlotte City Council has given an early endorsement to the Carolina Panthers request for $125 million in public money for stadium renovations, voting 7-2 to gauge the support of the N.C. General Assembly.
Under the citys plan, discussed Monday night, a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages would be increased to 2 percent. That money would help pay for renovations for Bank of America Stadium, the teams home since 1996.
Voting to advance the proposal which still needs approval from the legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory were Democrats John Autry, LaWana Mayfield, James Mitchell, David Howard, Beth Pickering, Claire Fallon and Republican Andy Dulin.
Republican Warren Cooksey and Democrat Michael Barnes voted no. Democrat Patsy Kinsey had left the meeting, and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, abstained from the nonbinding vote due to a possible conflict.
Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, didnt vote. He has indicated in the past that he supports helping the team.
The vote was an indication to the legislature that the city supports the proposal, though some council members said they are still negotiating with the Panthers. A number of council members said they believe that McCrory and legislative leaders also support the plan.
If the General Assembly approves the tax increase, possibly next month, the City Council would then take a vote in open session to enact it.
The total cost of the stadium renovations is reportedly more than $200 million. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is also expected to ask the state for money, according to people who attended the meeting.
Some council members are concerned about the teams long-term future in Charlotte.
Richardson, 76, has said he wont move the team. But its unclear what his succession plan is, and some fear the team could be sold and moved, possibly to Los Angeles, which doesnt have an NFL team. Richardson had a heart transplant in 2009.
Two council members said the city is negotiating with the Panthers for some level of assurance the team would remain in Charlotte as a condition for the $125 million.
Mondays meeting was attended by Richardson and team President Danny Morrison. Both made a presentation to council members, and then left the closed session meeting before the vote.
The team didnt talk to the media Monday night. During a news conference Tuesday to introduce the teams new general manager, Dave Gettleman, the team said it wouldnt answer any questions about the stadium renovations. The team referred all questions to the city of Charlotte.
The citys decision to discuss the Panthers request in closed session was different from how it handled a request last year from the Charlotte Knights baseball team for money to build an uptown baseball stadium.
When the Knights asked for city help, the issue was discussed in public meetings.
Some council members said Tuesday they didnt know why the Knights stadium deliberations were held in public, while the Panthers were allowed to meet with council members in private.
I dont have an answer for that, said Cooksey. He added that he would not discuss what was said in a closed session meeting.
Pickering said the Panthers are important to Charlotte and a public debate over the plan could have led to misimpressions.
She said the Knights desire for an uptown stadium had been discussed for years before council members considered giving the team money.
Higher food and bar taxes
Council members had previously believed that the city would increase Mecklenburg Countys hotel/motel occupancy tax to pay for stadium renovations. But city staff told council members Monday that the hotel/motel tax is high enough already.
The total Mecklenburg tax on hotel and motel rooms is 15.25 percent. The tax was raised by two percentage points last decade to pay for the $200 million NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Staff members instead turned to a countywide 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages that was enacted more than 20 years ago to pay for the Charlotte Convention Center. That tax generates about $24 million a year.
An increase in that tax may only be for the city of Charlotte not the entire county. If limited to the city of Charlotte, that increase would reportedly generate about $18 million or $19 million a year.
If the tax is approved, the overall sales tax for restaurant and bar purchases inside the city would increase to 9.25 percent.
For a city resident who spends $50 a week on prepared food and beverages, the tax increase would cost about 50 cents a week, or $26 a year.
The N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association has said in the past that restaurants shouldnt be singled out for special taxes. The current president, Lynn Minges, couldnt be reached for comment Tuesday.
Chris Walker, a spokesperson for McCrory, said the governor has no comment on the issue and hasnt been approached about it.
Jordan Shaw, a spokesperson for House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from Cornelius, couldnt be reached for comment.
The possible tax increase comes as Foxx and the City Council are trying to pass a multi-year capital program, which could cost between $500 million and $900 million. Any capital plan would require a property tax increase.
Laying the groundwork
There have been indications for months that the City Council was open to helping the citys NFL team.
In October, several council members toured MetLife Stadium, a new $1.6 billion facility in New Jersey used by the New York Giants and New York Jets. The stadium is one of the leagues most modern and luxurious, and public officials and business leaders were impressed by the stadiums exclusive suites and club areas. The trip was part of the Charlotte Chambers inter-city visit.
Richardson flew to New York to speak with council members and others on the tour. A day after the stadium tour, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the Charlotte delegation that the city could one day host a Super Bowl, so long as Bank of America Stadium is renovated and the city adds hotel rooms uptown.
The team has given only a few details of what a renovation could entail. The team told the Observer last fall that Richardson wants to add escalators to make it easier for fans to reach the upper bowl. In addition, the team wants to improve its video boards.
During Mondays meeting, the team reportedly told council members it would also improve suites.
When Richardson built Bank of America Stadium in the mid 1990s, the public contributed $60 million toward infrastructure. But the team along with people who bought Personal Seat Licenses and luxury suites paid for the stadiums construction. The stadium cost about $187 million.
The team has often struggled on the field. But the value of the franchise has grown, according to an estimate by Forbes magazine, which has said the team is worth $1.05 billion. The fee paid to the NFL for getting the franchise was $140 million.
A decade after the stadium opened, the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team got a much more generous deal from the public. The city of Charlotte paid the entire cost of the Bobcats home Time Warner Cable Arena uptown $265 million.
Other NFL teams have received significant public support.
In Minnesota, taxpayers are paying for half of the cost of a planned $975 million stadium for the Vikings. In Indianapolis, the public paid for almost all of the new $720 million stadium for the NFLs Colts, which opened in 2008.
The owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, said Monday he wants to spend $400 million upgrading his teams stadium. He asked for $200 million in public funds.
MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, was paid for primarily by the Giants and the Jets.
Raising the food and beverage tax inside the city of Charlotte could generate more money annually than would be needed for a debt payment on $125 million. Its possible the extra money could be used for other projects, such as a renovation of Bojangles Coliseum.