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Panthers Stadium Bill Moves Forward In N.C. House

Mark Hames
Charlotte Observer

  RALEIGH A day after speaking to a top Carolina Panthers official, the main sponsor of a bill to help finance improvements to the team’s stadium said Thursday there’s “a natural sense of urgency” to the effort.

Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson said Panthers President Danny Morrison, just back from NFL meetings in Arizona, told her about public financing plans for stadiums in Atlanta, Buffalo and Minnesota.

This week, NFL owners approved an agreement for the Buffalo Bills that would see New York state pay $54 million and Erie County $41 million toward renovations of Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Meanwhile, the city of Atlanta plans to pay at least $200 million toward a new stadium for the Falcons, In Minnesota, the state plans to pay $348 million toward a new home for the Vikings.

Samuelson spoke shortly after a House subcommittee endorsed a bill that would allow the city of Charlotte to use taxes now earmarked for its convention center for stadium upgrades. The bill could go to the House Finance Committee next week and then to the full House.

The Panthers have sought $144 million from the city and $62.5 million from the state for planned upgrades of more than $250 million.

The city originally asked permission to double its prepared foods tax to 2 percent. When legislators balked at the prospect of a tax increase, one council member came back with a proposal to raise the tax by half of a percent. That also has gone nowhere.

The current, bi-partisan bill would generate about $110 million, but would force the city to prioritize needs of the stadium against those of the convention center and amateur sports, which is being pushed by the tourism industry. But given the reluctance to raise taxes in a Republican-controlled legislature, supporters see the bill as a workable compromise.

Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders appear to have shut the door to direct state aid.

McCrory said this month that no state money would be available for the Panthers. And the $20.6 billion state budget he released this week included no money for them.

Samuelson said the Panthers “want a resolution on this so they can make plans.”

The city had sought to use the promise of financial help as leverage to tie the team to Charlotte for at least 15 years. Team owner Jerry Richardson, who’s 76, has said he directed his estate to sell the team two years after his death.

“It’s no secret that there are people interested in buying the team,” Samuelson said. “When they talk about what those other cities are doing and you factor in Mr. Richardson’s age, there’s a natural sense of urgency.”

In a statement, Morrison called the Panthers “a proven investment.”

“We appreciate the support that we have received from Mayor (Anthony) Foxx and the City Council and we are pleased to see this bill working through the process at the state level,” he said.

At Thursday’s subcommittee meeting, Samuelson clarified some aspects of the bill.

Any city-financed stadium improvements – escalators for example – would be owned and maintained by the city but leased to the team. If the team leaves or the stadium is sold, she said, provisions would be made to repay the city.