CHARLOTTE, NC (Ely Portillo/The Charlotte Observer) - The Carolina Panthers aren't just the biggest sports team in Charlotte – they're also the anchor for the busiest stretch of new developments in the city.
Developers are building $2.5 billion worth of new apartments, office buildings, shops, restaurants and hotels along the mile of Stonewall Street that runs from Bank of America Stadium east to the Interstate 277 loop. It's the most active stretch of redevelopment in Charlotte, which just a few years ago was mostly empty lots, an auto shop, metal works plant, a theater and the former Observer building.
Owner Jerry Richardson's bombshell announcement last Sunday that he will sell the Carolina Panthers after this season in the wake of alleged sexual and racist misconduct injects a note of uncertainty into the revival of Stonewall Street. For now, real estate developers say they're keeping an eye on the team, but it's too early for real concern.
"I'm confident that this potential uncertainty will turn into a win-win for all," said Brian Leary, president of commercial and mixed-use development at Crescent Communities. They're developing a 26-story office tower with Ally Bank, 459 apartments, two hotels, a Whole Foods and additional retail space on Stonewall Street.
"Crescent is a glass-half-full organization," he said, reflecting the optimistic outlook that's a near-universal trait among developers.
Any sale of the team could take years, and the new owners could well be local Charlotte figures who have no interest in moving the Panthers or their stadium. And despite recent moves by NFL teams out of San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland, many experts say the likelihood of the Panthers moving out of a thriving market like Charlotte is low.
Still, the uptown stadium is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Charlotte, and a major source of national exposure during televised games. Lincoln Harris, which is developing a massive, mixed-use project called Legacy Union next to the stadium, has used it in renderings for marketing material.
Stuart Proffitt, managing principal at Proffitt Dixon, is developing a 302-unit apartment building called Savoy on Stonewall Street that's opening in late 2018. The company already owns another new apartment building, the Presley, at Stonewall and McDowell streets. Losing the stadium uptown would be a "heartbreaker," he said.
"Our proximity to the stadium is something we believe our residents will value about living at Savoy," said Proffitt. "At Presley we have a community event on game days. Our neighbors get to know one another at these events and then often walk to the game together."
1,182 - New apartments under construction
662 - New hotel rooms
1.6 million - Square feet of new office space under construction, in 33- and 26-story towers.
38,000 - Square footage of new Whole Foods opening on Stonewall Street in 2018, uptown's first full-sized grocery store.
Although the Panthers play a maximum of only a dozen games uptown per year (if they make the playoffs with home field advantage), the 74,000-seat stadium draws outsized interest. It's also used for the Belk Bowl and has hosted the ACC Championship and international soccer matches.
Johno Harris, president of Lincoln Harris, said in a statement that the company isn't concerned. Legacy Union is expected to total 5 million square feet of office space, hotels, apartments, shops and restaurants. The first phase, a 33-story tower anchored by Bank of America, is under construction.
"We're incredibly confident and excited about the prospects for Legacy Union, which will be one of the most significant developments in the history of uptown Charlotte, and we expect the Panthers to be part of this community for many years to come," said Harris, in a statement. His father, Lincoln Harris CEO Johnny Harris, is a minority owner in the Panthers.
Northwood Ravin CEO David Ravin said that whileCharlotte benefits from having sports uptown, the Stonewall corridor would prosper even without the Panthers, especially given the small number of events in the stadium each year.
"I believe the Stonewall corridor is feeding on more than just the stadium draw, and while it would be disappointing to see a change, I think the Stonewall corridor would still be successful," said Ravin.
The impact of sports stadiums on development has long been debated, with many economists saying that public subsidies for sports stadiums often don't pay off. But losing a team can have a negative impact. In San Diego, a study from local economists estimated that 1,600 jobs would be lost as a result of the Chargers' relocation, many of them entry-level positions.
In Oakland, local officials have said that the Raiders' former stadium site will be a valuable location for redevelopment.
"It is without question economically better for Oakland" for the city to have the site freed up for redevelopment, Mayor Libby Schaaf said. "But it is an injury to our spirit, to our sense of history, to our culture."
Even if the Panthers stays where they are, a new owner is likely to demand costly upgradespaid for in large part by the city of Charlotte. The 22-year-old Bank of America Stadium lacks a retractable roof, like the Atlanta Falcons new, $1.5 billion home.
Charlotte's tourism taxes – hotel/motel taxes and restaurant levies – have enough money to cover another round of improvements at Bank of America Stadium for a similar price to the $87.5 million Charlotte pledged for upgrades in 2013. Anything beyond that, especially a $1 billion-plus new stadium, would likely require permission to raise taxes from the state legislature.
If a new owner secured pricey upgrades for Bank of America Stadium, that could boost the team's long-term prospects in Charlotte and make the Stonewall corridor more vibrant – especially if those upgrades led to Charlotte being considered for mega-events like a Super Bowl.
Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, said the redevelopment sweeping Stonewall Street isn't dependent on the stadium.
"What is driving the redevelopment of the Stonewall corridor really stands on its own," Smith said. "It's multifaceted."
But he said having a downtown stadium is a "differentiator" for Charlotte.