RALEIGH, N.C. -- Rejecting a plea from tourism officials, a bipartisan group of Charlotte lawmakers indicated Wednesday that their proposal to help finance renovations at Bank of America Stadium might be the best the city can hope for.
Charlotte tourism leaders this week asked the lawmakers to reconsider their latest plan to help the Carolina Panthers, saying the proposal wouldn’t provide enough money for the Charlotte Convention Center.
A bill introduced last week would allow the city to use taxes earmarked for the convention center to help pay for stadium renovations. The bill was offered as an alternative to the city’s request to double the 1 percent local food tax to raise $144 million for stadium upgrades.
“The bill directly and negatively impacts one of the city’s leading sources of tourism for the region, the Charlotte Convention Center,” Tom Murray, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and three other tourism officials wrote to the bill’s sponsors.
“While we support the Carolina Panthers, our primary concern is to preserve the city’s investment in the Charlotte Convention Center and support the tourism industry.”
The existing taxes earmarked for the convention center would allow $110 million in new city debt, $34 million less than the Panthers requested from the city. And using that money could leave nothing for convention center upgrades.
“The reality is that the amount of tax revenue is not going to be enough to do everything the city wants to do,” GOP Rep. Ruth Samuelson said Wednesday. “So the city is going to have to prioritize.”
In the letter, Murray and the others said the bill “would leave the convention center without sufficient financial resources to accomplish the planned capital needs of the building and it is not likely that there will be additional revenue sources in the future.”
But in an interview with the Observer last year, Murray said he didn’t think the convention center needed to be expanded. “Space isn’t a problem for us,” Murray said at the time.
Expanded in 2010
The convention center was expanded most recently in 2010 when the 40,000-square foot Crown Ballroom was opened next to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The center is currently occupied about 37 percent of the time, which is below the industry average for similar-sized centers in other cities.
In response to Observer questions, CRVA spokesperson Laura Hill called the 17-year-old center “an aging facility.”
“(It) will need significant upgrades not only for the functionality of the building, but to keep the building competitive in the convention marketplace,” she said.
The convention center business is highly competitive nationwide. Cities across the country have poured money into new facilities and expanding old centers.
The city and CRVA say the convention center is an important economic engine for the region. Having the center helped the city land last year’s Democratic National Convention.
But the center hasn’t lived up to its original projections. Before it was built, a consultant estimated it would generate 528,000 hotel room nights a year in new business. Instead, it usually produces about 150,000 hotel room nights.
Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble said that the CRVA would still have some money for the convention center outside of the $110 million in debt capacity. The convention center fund would still have enough money to cover any operating deficits, as well as “small capital needs.”
The city and the CRVA recently put a new roof on the building, and also added a new electronic marquee on the front of the building. Hill, the CRVA spokesperson, said the CRVA is considering renovating the center’s bathrooms and replacing some doors.
Advice for Mayor Foxx
The city’s original proposal to raise the local food and beverage tax also included a provision to keep the team in Charlotte for 15 years. Team owner Jerry Richardson, who’s 76, has said his estate would sell the team two years after he’s out of the picture.
Samuelson said while she “wouldn’t tell the city what to do,” city officials should “think creatively about using what they have to help keep the Panthers.”
One bill sponsor offered more specific advice.
“Perhaps (the mayor) could consider changing the priorities and move funding for the Panthers ahead of funding the streetcar, and then fund the streetcar at a later date,” said Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews.
Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, has pushed to spend $119 million local money for a streetcar that he says would bring needed economic development to parts of the city’s east and west sides.
One Democrat who co-sponsored the stadium funding bill said it’s probably the best the city can hope for.
“The bill … is a bill deigned to pass the House,” said Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat. “There is no support for a tax increase with the existing (Republican) leadership here.
“Is it enough? No. But it’s a start.”