Over five years, Charlotte taxpayers are contributing $75 million to renovations at the Carolina Panthers’ home field. So what are they getting for their money?
Some of the more noticeable projects have been new escalators and two giant video boards already installed at Bank of America Stadium. But emails obtained through a public records request show that less visible work has also been proposed, ranging from locker room carpet to security system fire panels.
The emails between Charlotte and team officials provide new details on the costs associated with the renovations. They also provide a window into how the city and the team decide on work to be done and how to pay for it.
Under a pact reached in 2013, the city agreed to contribute $75 million to the project over five years, while the Panthers committed to pay $37.5 million. As part of the deal, the team agreed to be “tethered” to the city for at least six years, with further penalties for leaving in years seven through 10.
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The city has already chipped in $28 million toward the renovations and will dole out $23.5 million in both 2016 and 2018 for additional work. The Panthers have already exceeded their commitment, having spent $72 million so far, with plans to shell out another $8 million this year, according to deputy city manager Ron Kimble.
Discussions between the team and the city on the next round of projects began in February 2015, the emails show. Construction will begin after the Panthers finish their season, which is being extended by the playoffs.
“It creates a shorter time window to do the improvements the longer they continue to play in the playoffs,” Kimble said. “A good problem to have, but it creates its own challenges.”
The Panthers have already disclosed plans to upgrade the upper 500-level concourse and the stadium’s Wi-Fi system, but other items on the February 2015 list included visitors locker room carpet ($94,500), freight elevators ($500,000), player dining kitchen ($350,000) and security systems ($600,000), according to the e-mails.
Plans for this year’s renovations are still being finalized, but escalating construction costs have forced some changes, Kimble said.
$75 million Amount the city of Charlotte agreed to contribute, over five years, to renovations at Bank of America Stadium.
$37.5 million Amount the Panthers committed to pay.
$28 million What the city has paid so far, with plans to spend $23.5 million in both 2016 and 2018 for additional work.
$72 million What the Panthers have spent so far, with plans to pay $8 million this year.
The breakdown for the $23.5 million in city-funded projects is expected to be about $17 million for the upper-level concourse work, about $3 million for security improvements and the rest for miscellaneous capital projects, he said. The city does not pay for work in the club level or in luxury suites, according to the agreement.
Security received attention this year when protesters rappelled inside the stadium during the Nov. 2 Monday Night Football game. The security improvements are designed to keep people safe and to improve movement into and around the stadium, Kimble said.
“To my knowledge, (the security improvements) were always contemplated,” Kimble said. “They are not in response to any recent incidents.”
The planned Wi-Fi upgrade is now being covered by the Panthers, he said. The project was originally on the list of city-funded renovations, budgeted at $5 million.
Here’s a look at other items of interest in the emails, which go back to 2013:
▪ The team sends invoices to the city as work occurs on the stadium. The city appears to keep close track of the outflow, with an official at one point flagging a $1,500 discrepancy. Ironically, Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank is the escrow agent that issues the checks for the stadium named for Charlotte-based Bank of America.
▪ One wrinkle in the agreement between the team and the city is that taxpayer-funded projects become property of the city. This was done so the Panthers wouldn’t pay extra property taxes on the new projects. Instead, the city leases the assets back to the team, an arrangement that is not taxable.
A December 2014 email provides an example of how the city and the team pass money back and forth. In the message, Kimble instructs staff to set up a meeting so Richard Thigpen, the Panthers’ attorney, can deliver a $1 million check for the leasing of city-funded stadium improvements. Meanwhile, the Panthers had invoiced the city for $900,000 in maintenance on the team’s leased assets, as part of the agreement.
“After cutting the checks, we then need to meet Richard face to face and exchange checks,” Kimble writes.
The Panthers don’t disclose their finances, but Forbes magazine estimates the team has annual revenue of $325 million and operating income of $77.8 million. That’s around the middle of the pack among NFL teams.
▪ City and team officials appear to have a friendly relationship.
In August 2014, city manager Ron Carlee wrote from vacation at the Outer Banks to say he watched Panthers team president Danny Morrison’s TV interview during a Panthers preseason game. “Nicely done,” he wrote. “Congrats on getting all the renovations done. Should be a great season.”
“Thanks for the nice note – hope that you could tell we are excited about the renovations – the city’s support helped make them possible – have a great weekend,” Morrison responded.
A month later, Kimble emailed an attorney representing the Panthers to say the city had “great solutions” on how to create “early funding” for the next round of stadium improvements. “The City is excited to ‘move this ball forward!’” Kimble wrote.
Kimble, in an interview, said the city needed to find “little bits” of money to pay for design work before construction began.
▪ In one instance, the Panthers were too friendly. In September 2013, Scott Paul, the Panthers’ director of stadium operations, offered tickets to an upcoming Panthers game to William Haas, the city’s building services division manager.
“Thanks for the ticket offer,” Haas responded. “I love the Panthers, but our City Ethics Policy prevents me from accepting.”
The Panthers were not aware of the policy at the time, team spokesman Steven Drummond said, and have not offered tickets since then. Kimble also said there have not been any further incidents.
“It has been a rewarding experience,” he said of the project, “to see how we can work together and have a fantastic stadium for a fantastic fan experience and a great economic impact for our region.”