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Volume 20 No. 41
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There’s blame to go around in Panthers’ deal

Jerry Richardson remains one of the most powerful owners in the most powerful sports league in the nation, but his home-field advantage faded a bit during recent stadium negotiations.

Richardson, 76, spent more than a year positioning his Carolina Panthers for a run at taxpayer money to spruce up the franchise’s 17-year-old privately held stadium. But a heated rivalry between the GOP-run state government and Charlotte’s Democratic-heavy city government left almost everyone involved unfulfilled.

City politicos and the Panthers called a late audible to piece together a deal that gives the team $87.5 million in taxpayer money in exchange for a

10-year commitment to stay in Charlotte. But four of those years come with greatly reduced financial penalties, meaning taxpayers locked up the team in a strict sense only through 2018.

All of which is a far cry from the $200 million in public money proposed by the city in exchange for a 15-year commitment, or “hard tether.”

Meanwhile, the team was initially set to contribute $62.5 million, but in the revised deal, the team invests $37.5 million in capital costs that will include new escalators, video and ribbon boards, and a team hall of fame.

There is blame to go around, from the team to the city to the newly installed governor, a former mayor of Charlotte.

Start with the Panthers. For the better part of a year, the team worked on what it billed as a 10-year master plan for the stadium. Throughout those months, Panthers executives said they weren’t asking for taxpayer funds but, instead, determining what was needed for the 74,000-seat stadium.

Last September, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx wrote to Richardson inviting him to share the team’s plans with the city. Foxx didn’t promise taxpayer money, but it was obvious to everyone that the two sides had already begun considering just that. From there, everyone went silent again — until Richardson and his deputies met with city leaders in a closed-door session in January.

The lack of openness stirred resentment among voters and media, as Richardson declined to address the stadium talks.

In February, after yet another closed-door meeting, the Charlotte City Council announced it had endorsed the 15-year deal requiring the Panthers to stay in exchange for $144 million in city tax money and $62.5 million from the state — all of which came with a major caveat. In North Carolina, cities have little control when it comes to taxes, so the city, which had already tapped out tourist taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars for other venues, including Time Warner Cable Arena and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, set its sights on increasing the restaurant meals tax.

Here, all concerned stumbled together. Neither the city nor the team won an endorsement from the state restaurant lobby, so the tax was dismissed after it was proposed. This seemed especially galling for Richardson, who made his personal fortune in fast-food restaurants. The city failed to mention that the $125 million for the Panthers it hoped to raise from the increased meals tax would, in fact, be exceeded by $875 million under its proposal of a 1 percent increase for 30 years. This, too, failed to reassure the public and a GOP-led legislature.

The specter of losing an NFL franchise in a city known for its twin bouts of relentless ambition and infinite insecurity stirred predictable civic angst. Richardson has mandated the team be sold no later than two years after he dies, and the privately owned stadium made the Panthers the freest of free agent franchises. And the next owner might not be as enamored of the Carolinas as Richardson, putting the Panthers in play.

In fact, it was this concern over the team’s future that finally drove both sides to a deal, as more and more officials were worried that Richardson might be open to selling. According to transcripts of the closed-door sessions released by the city, one of Richardson’s attorneys hinted at a potential sale. Beyond that, the team was, according to the city, fielding potential offers as recently as February.

After the city approved the scaled-down agreement, Richardson addressed the politicians at city hall that seemed to hint at this.

“The best ‘tether’ you’ve got is me,” he said. “If you want a tether, say a prayer for me.”

And a prayer for the next round of stadium negotiations, sure to arrive sooner rather than later.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.