There are endless questions to ask, spreadsheets to analyze, legislators to depend on and details to be worked out, but new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper just might usher in a new model for how to hit up taxpayers for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The old model worked this way: A team owner, such as Jerry Richardson, went to local elected officials and, out of sight of taxpayers, told them the deal. As in: I need this many million to renovate my stadium, and you have little choice in the matter because you don’t want me to move the team to St. Louis.
That’s roughly how it went down five years ago when the City Council gave Richardson $87 million for escalators, a new scoreboard and other improvements to Bank of America Stadium. Bob Johnson and his NBA team wouldn't have come to Charlotte if the city hadn't agreed to build an uptown arena 17 months after voters rejected doing so. It’s how it has gone down in many other cities across the country.
Now in walks Tepper, a man who didn’t become worth $11 billion by leaving money on the table. So you can be sure that he’ll be seeking taxpayer help for renovating the Panthers’ stadium and moving the team’s practice facility, probably just over the border to South Carolina. And with the current City Council, there’s little doubt he could strut in to the Government Center and demand a check.
But judging from his introductory press conference Tuesday, that might not happen. Asked about the way Richardson ran things, Tepper repeatedly said, “That was then; this is now.” He was referring to the team’s workplace culture, but he also could have been referring to how he’ll approach the public.
Tepper has grand visions that go far beyond watching the Panthers play on Sundays. He mentioned the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer team to town that would, presumably, play in a renovated Bank of America Stadium. He wants to move the practice facility that abuts the stadium and points out that that could free up valuable uptown land for lucrative development. He knows the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to allow sports gambling, and he will surely have designs on how to incorporate that into the Panthers’ future. He’s also aware that a new station will soon allow fans from across the Carolinas to take Amtrak trains into the heart of uptown.
All of these things, done right, could generate oceans of taxpayer revenue. If Tepper were to partner with the city to build a sizable uptown entertainment district, they could collect millions by applying a new food and beverage tax to it. If North Carolina permits sports gambling, that too would bring in all new tax revenue. An MLS team, purchased with Tepper's money, would spark new revenue for the city.
Some of that new money could go to, say, public education and police officers, and much of it could go to pay for stadium improvements. A win-win, Tepper might call it.
We’re not saying the City Council and other government leaders should just fall for the promise of magic beans. There are dozens of unknowns in all this. But it’s a compelling thought: Instead of yet another round of extortion from a billionaire team owner, perhaps there’s a way to work out a better deal for taxpayers and to bolster Tepper’s bottom line at the same time, all while improving the city.