If you were the owner of the Carolina Panthers and wanted a better deal on your team’s headquarters, you’d probably do exactly what David Tepper is doing right now.
You’d flirt with the next-door neighbor, in this case across the border in South Carolina.
You’d see if officials there could offer you a better deal that involves cheaper land and lower taxes than you’re currently paying.
You’d smile when the governor of the state that wants you holds a press conference to say so, and when the governor of the state that might lose you tells reporters he doesn’t want that to happen.
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So it was this week with the Panthers, who by all indications are seriously considering moving their headquarters across the border to York or Lancaster counties. At the least, it’s smart negotiating, and it’s not only what you would do in David Tepper’s shoes. It’s what corporate CEOs and presidents regularly engage in (minus the press conference, perhaps) when they’re contemplating a new home or a better deal in their current city.
Is Charlotte being played by Tepper and the Panthers? Of course. But city officials and all Charlotteans should strip away the emotion that often gets tangled up in discussions about pro sports and public money. They should realize what this negotiation is — and what it isn’t.
This negotiation is for a corporate headquarters — a moderately sized one of 150 employees, with a more-than-moderately-sized payroll of about $190 million a year.
What the negotiation isn’t about is the Panthers moving games out of Bank of America Stadium. The team doesn’t want to move to a stadium in the less-populated suburbs. The NFL doesn’t want that kind of move, either. That doesn’t mean the team and city won’t face stadium negotiations that might include talk about the Panthers moving to a stadium in another city. Those discussions are coming someday. This isn’t it.
As for the corporate headquarters, it’s difficult to tell how serious the Panthers are about York or Lancaster counties. South Carolina can certainly offer a stout package of incentives, including inexpensive land for a domed practice facility and a restaurant/entertainment complex Tepper has wanted to develop. Still, it’s no small thing to make your employees and executives endure a trying commute each day to South Carolina, and cheaper land isn’t necessarily the best land on which to build a successful retail and entertainment district.
A better option: uptown Charlotte. Tepper knows this. So do Charlotte and North Carolina officials, who could dangle that kind of collaborative venture to Tepper. The team has had “ongoing conversations” with the N.C. Commerce Department and has spoken with Gov. Roy Cooper, his spokesman told the Observer. The Panthers are working both sides — as they should — and they’ll surely see if the state and Charlotte can come up with a better deal on what’s a better location than across the border.
Charlotte officials should somberly try to do so — just as they do for any corporation big or small that’s getting wooed by another state. But they shouldn’t open the vault too much, because the reality is that even if the Panthers move their headquarters across the border, they’re not doing the same with their games. Charlotte isn’t losing the Panthers. At least not yet.