CHARLOTTE, NC (Ely Portillo/The Charlotte Observer) - Whoever the Carolina Panthers' next owners are, they're likely to want major upgrades to the team's stadium – or a new one altogether.
And if they want a new stadium, could one even fit uptown? While any talk of a new stadium is, of course, speculative, it's hard to miss the fact that uptown is much denser and there's a lot less land available than when workers broke ground on Bank of America Stadium in 1994.
"It's premature, and it would be speculation," said Ron Kimble, the former deputy city manager who led negotiations with the Panthers in 2013 for $87.5 million worth of stadium improvements and is now a consultant for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
"A new owner will have to determine the viability of the current stadium and how much longer it might last," said Kimble. "It is a great older stadium."
Team founder and owner Jerry Richardson announced this month that he will sell the team at the end of the season, following a bombshell report in Sports Illustrated alleging he used a racial slur and engaged in sexual misconduct at work. Richardson had previously planned for the team to be sold within two years of his death.
Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates, who is heading a group trying to buy the Panthers, says the stadium must be replaced by a domed venue similar to the $1.6 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which opened in September.
Although Bank of America Stadium has been updated in recent years, with new escalators and jumbo video boards, it doesn't have a dome, a feature that many view as essential for a stadium to host the Super Bowl, Final Four or college football championship.
Kimble has told council members that the city's tourism taxes can't cover the city's share of a $1 billion stadium. That share could be $300 million to $500 million.
The Panthers' stadium occupies about 25 acres at South Graham and Mint streets, while a nearby practice facility occupies about eight more acres. Despite the proliferation of new development and the disappearance of surface parking lots across uptown in recent years, there are still some spots that could accommodate a new stadium – but each comes with a hitch.
- There’s a tract of undeveloped land south of Morehead Street near the stadium, but Charlotte Pipe and Foundry bought much of that 18-acre parcel from Beazer Homes in 2011. The company has since built a warehouse and a training facility on part of the site, and hasn’t announced plans for the rest.
- Levine Properties still owns big tracts of land in First Ward, which is largely undeveloped and more open than the other three uptown wards. The company owns nearly 20 acres in First Ward, covering big swaths between Sixth and Ninth streets, and on three sides of First Ward Park, along the Blue Line light rail extension. But that’s down from about 32 acres a decade ago – some of the land has already been sold for new development, such as apartments by Lennar Multifamily, or redeveloped into First Ward Park.
In a statement to the Observer, CEO Daniel Levine was noncommittal about the idea of a First Ward stadium. His company is building a parking deck and apartments at Tenth Street.
"No question all eyes are on the First Ward," Levine said. "Our vision for our footprint remains the same: Charlotte's next great neighborhood to live, work and play, and we are well on our way with UNC Charlotte's Center City Campus, First Ward Park, (Lennar's) apartments and the Tenth Street deck/apartments."
- Second Ward, in the southeast quadrant of uptown, also has large tracts of undeveloped land or outdated buildings slated for demolition. Much of that land is owned by Mecklenburg County. But the county has already agreed to sell the biggest chunk of that – 17 acres, including Marshall Park – to a development partnership that’s planning to redevelop the area into a $683 million, mixed-use project called Brooklyn Village.
If a Panthers owner wants a new stadium outside of the city, they could look to the surrounding counties, or even 10 miles across the state line to South Carolina – where the minor league Charlotte Knights played until their 2013 move from York County.
"It is obvious and evident that Charlotte values center city stadiums," said Kimble, pointing to Bank of America Stadium, the Spectrum Center where the Charlotte Hornets play, and BB&T Ballpark, home of the Charlotte Knights.
But Charlotte's central stadium location isn't the norm for many NFL cities, which have stadiums located in far-flung suburbs with abundant land and huge seas of parking that can be a money-maker for their owners.