RALEIGH, N.C. -- House Speaker Thom Tillis said Tuesday he cannot support using state tax dollars to renovate Bank of America Stadium, but he left open supporting a local tax hike to help the Carolina Panthers.
Team owner Jerry Richardson met Monday with Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory as he pursues money for $250 million in planned improvements to the 17-year-old stadium. The Panthers have asked the city of Charlotte for $125 million. They hope to split the rest with the state.
“I’ve been clear with the Panthers organization that it is not appropriate to have state taxpayer dollars go directly into the stadium, so that is more or less a level set on our part,” Tillis told reporters Tuesday morning.
But Tillis said he would consider the most important part of the team’s request – the city of Charlotte’s contribution.
The Charlotte City Council gave a tentative endorsement in closed session two weeks ago to helping the Panthers. Council members voted 7-2 to see if the General Assembly would approve increasing the local prepared food and beverage tax from 1 percent to 2 percent.
That would raise about $20 million a year, more than enough to cover the city’s share of the annual debt.
“We would not be appropriating money to go directly into the stadium up-fit,” said Tillis, a Cornelius Republican. “But I’ve also spoken with the various elected officials at the local level to consider options that they were talking about in terms of local revenue. We will continue those discussions.”
City of Charlotte officials have declined to discuss the Panthers’ request, saying it’s an economic development issue and should be discussed only in closed session. But some city officials, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the negotiations, said they understood Monday’s meeting to be positive in terms of moving the team’s request forward.
Concerned about future
The Charlotte City Council is concerned about the team’s long-term future in Charlotte. Richardson, 76, has said he won’t move the team from Charlotte.
But Richardson’s will calls for the team to be sold within two years of his death, according to a source close to the Panthers.
The city’s fear is that a new owner could move the team to Los Angeles, which is seeking an NFL franchise. A number of NFL cities have been concerned about their team moving to California, including Minneapolis, Atlanta and Buffalo.
Tillis said during his news conference that he believes a move “is a very real possibility for the Panthers.”
“I’m having a discussion with them. It would be like the discussions I’ve had with several employers in Raleigh and Wilmington and in the mountains,” Tillis said, “to see what it is that is driving them to the possibility of moving somewhere else and whether this state or local government should do anything to really encourage them to keep their business in North Carolina.”
Tillis said he’ll treat the team like any other major employer. He said the Panthers are responsible for 4,400 direct jobs and an estimated 1,500 indirect jobs.
While Tillis said he would not support a legislative effort to use state money to renovate the stadium, the North Carolina Department of Commerce does offer financial assistance to companies considering moving to the state, as well as for companies to stay.
For instance, when Chiquita Brands International agreed to move to Charlotte from Ohio, local and state governments provided an incentive package worth $22 million. The state incentives were based on Chiquita receiving a refund for part of its tax withholdings on state income tax filings.
Those incentives, known as Job Development and Investment Grants, are approved by a five-member Economic Investment Committee – not the General Assembly. The state also has the One N.C. Fund, which is awarded by the governor’s office and the Department of Commerce.
The Panthers could ask the Department of Commerce for financial help.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to recruit companies,” state Department of Commerce spokesman Josh Ellis said. “But we won’t discuss whether we are working with a company.”
Crystal Feldman, a spokeswoman for McCrory, said in an email the governor believes “local leaders should make decisions on local issues – the same philosophy he employed as mayor of Charlotte.”
Local lawmakers concerned
It’s unclear if Mecklenburg-based lawmakers support an increase in the so-called meals tax. The N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association is against the proposed increase.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Charlotte Democrat, said state money for the Panthers could be tough politically.
“I just don’t see this selling in Raleigh,” she said. “I’m not interested in giving away state money for a corporate issue such as this. … I just don’t see a real compelling case here at this time.”
Asked if it meant the possibility of losing the team, she said, “You know everybody makes the same threat all the time.”
She said she doesn’t support allowing the city to raise the prepared food tax.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, said she agrees with Tillis.
“We can’t put money directly into the building, state money, without some kind of ownership interest,” she said.
Samuelson, however, said she’s open to other ways of helping the Panthers, if it helps keep the team in Charlotte.
“I’d like to see the Panthers stay if we can make sure what we do binds them in some way to the state,” she said.
As part of its negotiations with the team, the City Council is considering a lease agreement that keeps the team in Charlotte for a decade or so.