The Charlotte City Council endorsed a proposal to give the Carolina Panthers $125 million for stadium renovations with a 7-2 vote during a closed session meeting late Monday night, according to people familiar with the debate.
Under the plan, a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages would be increased to 2 percent. That money would help fund the renovation plan for Bank of America Stadium, the team’s home since 1996.
Voting in favor of the plan — which still needs approval from the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — were Democrats John Autry, LaWana Mayfield, James Mitchell, David Howard, Beth Pickering, Claire Fallon and Republican Andy Dulin.
Republican Warren Cooksey and Democrat Michael Barnes voted no. Democrat Patsy Kinsey had left the meeting, and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, abstained from the vote due to a possible conflict. Kinsey was reportedly going to vote against the plan before she left.
Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, didn’t vote. He has indicated in the past that he supports helping the team.
The vote was a indication to the legislature that the city supports the proposal. It’s believed that City Council will still take a vote on the proposal in open session before the public.
The total cost of the stadium renovations is reportedly more than $200 million.
Monday’s meeting was attended by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and team president Danny Morrison. Both made a presentation for council members, and then left the closed session meeting before the vote.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police didn’t allow members of the media near the room in which council members and the team were meeting. Council members often meet in closed session, but having police protect the meeting room is highly unusual.
The team didn’t talk to the media Monday night. During a news conference Tuesday to introduce the team’s new general manager, Dave Gettleman, the team said it wouldn’t answer any questions about the stadium renovations. The team referred all questions to the city of Charlotte.
The city’s decision to discuss the Panthers request in closed session was different from how it handled a request last year from the Charlotte Knights baseball team for money to build an uptown baseball stadium.
When the Knights asked for city help, the issue was discussed in public meetings.
Some council members said Tuesday they didn’t know why the Knights stadium deliberations were held in public, while the Panthers were allowed to meet with council members in private.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” said Cooksey. He added that he would not discuss what was said in a closed session meeting.
Pickering said the Panthers are “important” to Charlotte and that a public debate over the plan could have led to “mis-impressions.”
She said the Knights desire for an uptown stadium had been discussed for years before council members considered giving the team money.
Higher food and bar taxes
Council members had previously believed that the city would increase Mecklenburg County’s hotel/motel occupancy tax to pay for stadium renovations. But city staff told council members Monday that the hotel/motel tax is high enough.
The total Mecklenburg tax on hotel and motel rooms is 15.25 percent. The tax was raised by two percentage points last decade to pay for the $200 million NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Staff members instead turned to a countywide 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages that was enacted more than twenty years ago to pay for the Charlotte Convention Center. That tax generates about $24 million a year.
An increase in that tax may only be for the city of Charlotte — not the entire county.
If the tax is approved, the overall sales for restaurant and bar purchases inside the city would increase to 9.25 percent.
For a city resident who spends $50 a week on prepared food and beverages, the tax increase would cost them about 50 cents a week, or $26 a year.
The possible tax increase comes as Foxx and the City Council are trying to pass a multi-year capital program, which could cost between $500 and $900 million. Any capital plan would require a property tax increase.
Laying the ground work
There have been indications for months that the City Council was open to helping the city’s NFL team.
In October, several council members toured MetLife Stadium, a new $1.6 billion stadium in New Jersey that’s used by the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets. The trip was part of the Charlotte Chamber’s inter-city visit.
Richardson spoke to council members and others on the tour. After the stadium tour, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the Charlotte delegation that the city could host a Super Bowl, so long as Bank of America Stadium is renovated and the city adds more hotel rooms uptown.
The team has given only a few details of what a renovation could entail. The team told the Observer last fall that Richardson wants to add escalators to make it easier for fans to reach the upper bowl. In addition, the team wants to improve its video boards.
During Monday’s meeting, the team reportedly told council members it would also improve suites.
In Minnesota, taxpayers are paying for half of the cost of a planned $975 million stadium for the Vikings. In Indianapolis, the public paid for almost all of the new $720 million stadium for the NFL’s Colts, which opened in 2008.
MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, however, was paid for primarily by the Giants and the Jets.
Some council members are worried about the Panthers’ long-term future in Charlotte. Richardson, who had heart transplant surgery in 2009, fired his two sons as team executives and hasn’t announced a succession plan for the team.
Los Angeles is trying to lure at least one NFL team to play in a new stadium.