CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, Bob Morgan, recently suggested a new Mecklenburg County tax as an option to help fund a new stadium deal for the Carolina Panthers, according to a county commissioner.
At-large commissioner Pat Cotham said she was sitting in the audience when Morgan floated the idea during a Chamber business event at the Ballantyne Hotel on Feb. 28.
Cotham told Channel 9 investigative reporter Paul Boyd that she raised her hand to object to the idea and "nip it in the bud" before it gained any traction.
"He just said, ‘Some kind of tax,’ and I just said, ‘No,’" Cotham explained.
The three-term commissioner said the tax idea was solely focused on helping keep the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. The NFL franchise is being sold, and new ownership is expected to seek tax dollars from multiple levels of government to upgrade their 22-year-old stadium or build a new stadium altogether.
Cotham said she jokingly explained that she would only support a stadium tax if it applied to yachts, country club memberships and luxury products. She mentioned what the Chamber president said as an off-handed comment during an interview with Channel 9 about future stadium funding.
WSOC-TV reached out to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce nearly one full week before publishing this report. We were initially told that Bob Morgan was "out of the country on vacation" and unavailable to comment but that efforts were being made to contact him.
During subsequent e-mails with Natalie Dick, a Vice-President who works with news media, we were told that the Chamber has not advocated for any form of taxation in meetings or forums around Charlotte.
On Monday morning, the Chamber acknowledged a new tax was discussed at the Ballantyne meeting but insisted the conversation was "purely hypothetical" in nature.
The Chamber responded with this statement:
“While the Charlotte Chamber has no formal role in the pending sale of the Carolina Panthers, we are the lead advocate on behalf of the business community ensuring that our city, county and state remain competitive for the retention of the team.
"It is premature to infer what the organization and our volunteer leadership may or may not support in the future."
Majority of county commissioners reject new tax idea
Channel 9 reached out directly to all nine elected Mecklenburg County commissioners and asked if they would be willing to spend any tax dollars to help keep the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
Four responded with unequivocal "no" answers: Bill James, Jim Puckett, Matthew Ridenhour and Pat Cotham.
A fifth commissioner, Dumont Clarke, said he would "not be inclined" to support direct tax dollar spending.
The remaining commissioners -- Ella Scarborough, Trevor Fuller, Vilma Leake and George Dunlap -- did not respond to our specific question on the issue.
County Manager Dena Diorio told Eyewitness News via a spokesperson that, "It's too premature to comment at this time" about any county financial support for the Carolina Panthers.
The argument against county support
Cotham said she has consistently been against any county support for professional sports teams.
"This is not what we do. What are we supposed to take away from? The schools? Parks and Rec? The greenways? Veterans? Homelessness? Are we supposed to subtract from them? No," Cotham said.
District 5 County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour has also been a long-time critic of government spending for professional sports teams and their stadiums.
"As much as I love the Carolina Panthers, no, I'm opposed to spending county tax dollars on helping keep them here," Ridenhour told Channel 9. "Economists have proven time and again that publicly financed stadiums are a bad deal for the taxpayer."
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Ridenhour said studies have also shown that disposable income spent on football games will still go into the local economy if it's not spent on professional sports.
"There's very little net gain for taxpayers to offset the large investment in a stadium," Ridenhour said.
Another concern for some commissioners is the growing push for Mecklenburg County to help fund a costly early childhood education initiative.
"We know (that) will cost tens of millions of dollars and quite possibly require a tax increase and so that is a competing priority. There's only so many dollars to go around," Ridenhour said
Scroll down to read full written responses from other commissioners.
District 6 Commissioner Bill James told Channel 9 that the "state and city should figure this out without trying to raid county coffers" and pointed to the city of Charlotte's tourism tax money as his preferred path forward to support the Panthers.
James also said, "Professional sports are big business that pay athletes millions to play. They do not need (and should not receive) the tax dollars of hard-working, tax-paying citizens of Mecklenburg."
District 1 Commissioner Jim Puckett echoed those sentiments in his written response, saying, "I do not support property taxes (the only real source of income the county has) being used to subsidize pro sports."
District 4 Commissioner Dumont Clarke responded via email that his support would "depend on all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the request" for county funding, but was generally not inclined to support direct tax dollar spending on the Panthers.
Clarke wrote that he was open to "issuing bonds to provide funds for the stadium" but only if a new, dedicated revenue source was implemented at the county level. Clarke did not offer details as to how a potential bond program would function.
How much is city of Charlotte willing to spend going forward?
As some Mecklenburg County commissioners dig in their heels, the focus turns to the city of Charlotte and how it might use its hotel and motel tourism tax to possibly help the Panthers.
June 2019 marks the end of a multi-year contract between the Carolina Panthers and city of Charlotte. Under the deal, the city has spent $75 million helping to upgrade Bank of America Stadium, which is owned outright by the Panthers. Charlotte's hotel and motel tourism tax has funded the majority of those upgrades.
In return, the Panthers have been "tethered" to Charlotte and contractually prevented from leaving town.
Channel 9 also reached out to all twelve elected members of City Council last week and asked if they would be willing to spend additional tax dollars to keep the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
Mayor Vi Lyles quickly responded by having staff contact council members and ask them to take a unified stance on the issue. Mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt was authorized to release a statement to WSOC-TV that read:
"The Council speaks as one voice on this topic. It is too early in the process for any of us to know what is involved in any potential negotiation with the Carolina Panthers. The City will work with the new ownership group, whoever it may be, and our goal is to keep the team in Charlotte."
Eiselt also agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the issue.
"The mayor took the lead to say we really have to signal that we are one voice on this issue," she said. "We absolutely support the Panthers. They're a big part of our city. We're enthusiastic about the opportunity to have them stay here but we'll wait to see what happens with the new ownership group."
City Manager Marcus Jones has been quoted as saying, "I look forward to the negotiations," when asked about an updated deal with the new ownership group.
A city spokesperson told Channel 9 that "Mr. Jones respectfully defers to the statement made by the City Council" on the issue of tax dollars supporting the Carolina Panthers.
Eiselt reiterated that the city is ready to talk, but needs to take a wait-and-see approach for now.
"We don't have anything to talk about until we know what it is they're asking for," Eiselt said.
Councilmember Justin Harlow responded to Channel 9's inquiry by saying a “full cost-benefit analysis" needs to be done, but indicated a "reasonable and responsible effort" needs to be made to help keep the Panthers in Charlotte.
Eiselt acknowledged that the city is hoping for a "collaborative effort" for future stadium needs but stopped short of asking the county for funding. She did acknowledge that there are early efforts underway to bring state-level support into the process, including South Carolina's legislature.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declined Channel 9's request to discuss the issue. However, the governor is on the record supporting the possibility of a state role in future negotiations and recently told the Charlotte Business Journal:
"We need to show the Panthers that the state will be a partner, that we want to try to help. (We'll) certainly stay in close contact with the local leaders -- the mayor, the county commissioners. We really don't know what the Panthers are going to want or need, but I certainly am keeping options open and want to hear from the local leaders about this effort."
Mayor Lyles has previously described keeping the Panthers in Charlotte as "our biggest business retention effort" and said she's traveled to the state legislature to make that argument.
Republican leadership of the General Assembly has not indicated where they stand on state funding.
Chamber of Commerce working behind the scenes
The Charlotte Chamber invited elected officials with the city, county and state to hear a presentation about supporting the Carolina Panthers on Friday, March 23 at their offices in uptown.
Cotham said the Chamber is making a strong push for a "city, county and state" solution as new ownership explores a new stadium deal.
Channel 9 asked for details of the most recent presentation but the Chamber did not provide any information about the meeting.
FULL RESPONSE FROM COMMISSIONER BILL JAMES:
No. Unlike the city which uses 'hotel-motel tax' revenue for improvements to pro-sports facilities; Mecklenburg County would have to fund any Panthers stadium $ with property/sales tax revenue which would take money away from schools, parks, libraries, social services, and other county functions.
I am opposed to using county tax revenue to subsidize pro-sports. Professional sports are big business that pay athletes millions to play. They do not need (and should not receive) the tax dollars of hard-working tax-paying citizens of Mecklenburg. This is why the county has historically not been involved in such decisions.
The state and city should figure this out without trying to raid county coffers.
FULL RESPONSE FROM COMMISSIONER JIM PUCKETT:
No, the city has a revenue source the hotel-motel tax for that purpose if any taxes are used it should only be those funds. I do not support property taxes (the only real source of income the county has) being used to subsidize pro sports.
FULL RESPONSE FROM COMMISSIONER DUMONT CLARKE:
I don't like answering hypothetical questions because my answer would, in fact, depend on all the facts and circumstances surrounding the request. In general, however, I would not be inclined to support spending property or sales tax revenues for improvements to the stadium the Carolina Panthers play in or to build a new one for them.
I don't know whether this is possible, but I might be inclined to support issuing bonds to provide funds for the stadium if there was a dedicated revenue source (other than property and existing sales tax revenues) to pay the interest and repay the principal on the bonds. Right now, such a dedicated revenue source does not exist.
FULL RESPONSE FROM COUNCILMEMBER JUSTIN HARLOW:
Yes, with full cost-benefit analysis being taken into account. We also don't know what a new owner will ask for so it is tough to speculate on any details. Ultimately, the Panthers are an integral part of our community. Sports are probably the one place where differences of race, age, socioeconomic status etc don't matter as much.
Sports bring our community together, even where other initiatives, programs, and institutions fall short. We must at least put up a reasonable and responsible effort to keep the Panthers here.
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