The Charlotte City Council gave tentative approval Friday to a plan that would provide $143.75 million to keep the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte for the next 15 years.
The bulk of the money $125 million would go toward upgrades at Bank of America Stadium, the uptown home of the team since 1996. Other money would go toward stadium maintenance and paying for traffic control on game days.
The vote came after a three-hour closed door session by the City Council, including a talk with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
Richardson declined to offer specifics on the teams request with reporters, saying only that the process is continuing.
He also tried to deflect questions of the Panthers ever leaving the city.
I never would want our team to move somewhere else, he said.
The new deal would help to fulfill Richardsons goal, at least for the near future. In exchange for money, the team must agree to not leave Charlotte for 15 years. That would keep the Panthers in Charlotte through the 2027 season.
In announcing the deal, Mayor Anthony Foxx said the Panthers have been valuable for the region, and have helped give residents a sense of unity.
If we had not made this decision and at some point in the future, the team had been sold and moved away we would feel that loss, Foxx said. We would feel it economically. We would feel it from the standpoint of the psychology of success this community has enjoyed over many years.
The deal hinges on state lawmakers agreeing to a 1 percent increase in the food and beverage tax levied in the city, as well as the state chipping in $62.5 million in aid toward the stadium upgrades. Some legislative leaders have indicated it would be a difficult fight.
The City Council also would have to give final approval to any deal in open session later this spring.
On Friday, council approved the plan in private session by a vote of 9-1, according to a source in the room. Republican Warren Cooksey was the lone no vote, while Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon was recused because of a possible conflict.
City could sue
The Carolina Panthers have been considering upgrades to the 17-year-old Bank of America Stadium for some time.
Limited details have been released on what the upgrades would entail, but it could include adding escalators to the upper bowl and improvements to video boards.
Some city leaders began signaling last fall that they would be open to considering public money for the upgrades and directed staff to initiate discussions with the Panthers.
Talks about city aid picked up last month. In mid-January, the council endorsed money for the stadium by a 7-2 vote.
In addition to the cost for upgrading the stadium, the deal would have the city and Panthers each contribute $15 million toward stadium maintenance $1 million a year for 15 years. In addition, the city would spend $3.75 million through 2027 to direct traffic on game days.
The team also would agree to provide the stadium rent-free for the annual Belk Bowl and up to four other events.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann said he believes the citys 15-year deal is strong. If the team attempts to leave before the lease is finished, it allows the city to sue the Panthers. The jurisdiction would be North Carolina state courts.
Hagemann said Richardson depressed the value of the franchise by agreeing to a 15-year tether.
The team had the ability to move at any time, potentially making the franchise more valuable to a potential buyer.
Plan A, B and C
The crux of the stadium plan rests on an increase to the sales tax levied in Charlotte. The hike would raise the total sales tax on food and beverages to 9.25 percent.
The city has proposed that the tax hike end after 30 years, although the City Council could vote to repeal the tax at any time.
The citys plan is to pay the debt off in 15 years. The tax is expected to raise $20 million a year, and would likely grow annually, barring a steep recession
Hagemann said there would likely be additional money left over. The tentative plan is to allow that money to be spent to help the hospitality industry, possibly with projects such as renovating Bojangles Coliseum to attract amateur sports.
The tax money couldnt be used for projects such as the streetcar, under the proposal.
Fridays vote helped to clear one hurdle in getting public money for the stadium upgrades. But now city and team leaders must persuade state leaders to go along.
It could be tough. N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from Cornelius, has said he couldnt support using state tax dollars directly for the renovation project. But he left the door open to supporting a local tax hike to help the effort. Tillis couldnt be reached for comment Friday.
House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes of Hickory said last month he wasnt sure the chamber would support an increase in the sales tax.
It is unclear how quickly the Panthers proposal could come up for a vote in the General Assembly. But a vote against the tax would be a problem for local officials.
When asked if the city had other alternatives if the state rejects the tax hike, Foxx said: This is Plan A, B and C.
Bethea: 704-358-6013. Twitter: @AprilBethea