The Panthers may look to Pittsburgh for ideas on how to approach uptown development

If you’re looking for clues on how the Carolina Panthers might approach a large-scale development around Bank of America Stadium, look no further than Pittsburgh’s North Shore development, which includes the land between the Steelers and Pirates home fields.

The public-private project in Pittsburgh will ultimately include 800,000 square feet of office space and 140,000 square feet of retail space, including bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues. The idea is to make the area an “epicenter of energy” for fans, said Panthers Chief Operating Officer Mark Hart, who spent decades spearheading the Steelers development efforts before being hired by Panthers owner David Tepper in December.

Speaking in Pittsburgh to a delegation of visiting government and business leaders from Charlotte Thursday, Hart discussed lessons learned from the project with a panel of executives from the Pirates, the University of Pittsburgh and Continental Real Estate, the developer behind the effort.

For years, the Pirates and Steelers played in the run-down Three Rivers Stadium, which was surrounded by a “sea of asphalt parking” with nearly 20,000 spots, Hart said. Back then, similar to Bank of America Stadium, there wasn’t much to do near the stadium besides watch a game.

Ultimately, the Pirates and Steelers built their own fields, PNC Park and Heinz Field, respectively, which are about half a mile apart and along the Ohio and Allegheny rivers. Both facilities opened in 2001.

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The North Shore development, a public-private project in Pittsburgh between Heinz Field and PNC Park, will ultimately include 800,000 square feet of office space and 140,000 square feet of retail space, including bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues. In developing the area around Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers could look to Pittsburgh for inspiration. Keith Srakocic AP

Bryan Stroh, senior vice president of general affairs and general counsel for the Pirates, said the team has spent a lot of time soliciting feedback from fans, who want to see more “complementary uses” in facilities. That means adding things like high-quality food and drink venues within the stadium area, he said.

“One of the biggest things we’ve learned from our fans is that people don’t like sitting for three hours in the same spot,” Stroh said.

Public-private partnership

Another big lesson, Stroh said, is to “develop a process with your community leaders and landlords and whoever you’re dealing with that gives you the ability to shift as times change.”

In other words, be nimble, he said.

When the teams put together their master plan for the project in 2000, they didn’t anticipate the arrival of ride-sharing, and how drastically that would cut down on the need for parking spots. They also didn’t anticipate the financial crisis, which crippled the lending environment, Stroh said.

The North Shore redevelopment was made possible through a public-private partnership in which the city and county, state and the teams contributed $75 million each.

Working out such an agreement is arduous, and for the Steelers has included years of bickering with the government, lawsuits and referendums, Hart said. But it is something Charlotte could consider, he added.

It is unclear whether the Panthers have approached state and local governments about funding a stadium development project.

“When you’re doing urban development, it has to be a public-private partnership,” said Barry Ford of Continental Real Estate, the developer behind the North Shore project.

Another one of the challenges is breaking away from how things have been done in the past, said Heather Lyke, athletics director at the University of Pittsburgh.

Concerts and festivals

Tepper, a hedge fund billionaire and former Steelers minority owner, has already made some major changes to the Panthers organization, which he bought last summer for $2.275 billion.

South Carolina lawmakers recently approved $115 million in tax breaks for the Panthers new campus in Rock Hill, for instance. The team recently began construction on an enclosed practice bubble in uptown Charlotte.

The stadium, which will remain uptown, will likely be used for much more than just football on Sundays, too.

With events such as high school football championships, beer festivals and outdoor concerts, Bank of America Stadium would act more like a community facility rather than one that’s just for NFL games, Tepper has said.

For years, many NFL stadiums like that of the Panthers operated in somewhat of an “inverse Chick-fil-A model,” said Hart, referring to the fast-food chain that’s open every day but Sunday. Now, the plan is to use the stadium all year round just like the Rooney family, who owns the Steelers, does.

“The Rooneys said, ‘We want to be in business every single day. Not just on NFL football games,’ “ Hart said. “One of the ideas we had planning Heinz Field ... we saw an opportunity to do music events and really entertainment events (in and) adjacent to the stadium.”

Since opening in 1996, Bank of America Stadium has hosted just two concerts: The Rolling Stones in 1997, and Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw in 2012. Heinz Field has hosted so many concerts that the stadium’s Wikipedia page features an entire section on the acts that have performed there.

Last month, Heinz Field hosted country singer Garth Brooks, who drew 75,000 fans, the largest crowd in stadium history.

“Steal the best ideas from other venues. When you go to other cities … recognize how they do things. You can come back and say we can implement that here, in Pittsburgh or Charlotte,” Lyke said.


A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the title of Mark Hart. He is the Panthers' chief operating officer.
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As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.