David Tepper’s Deals: Owner dodges questions on Eastland, Rock Hill and Uptown District as hints about stadium renovations emerge

Who is driving and where are questions WBTV is trying to get answers to since hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in both Carolinas are on the line.
Published: May. 3, 2022 at 6:58 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Since his very first days in Charlotte, Panthers and Charlotte FC owner David Tepper has been described as a straight shooter. But a WBTV investigation and review of public-private partnerships with Tepper Sports & Entertainment raises questions about how often the billionaire’s target is shifting.

Before Tepper’s purchase of the Panthers was even finalized, WBTV Reporter Steve Crump interviewed Charlotte Councilman Ed Driggs about what Driggs wanted to see from the NFL’s new richest owner.

“We need to get the preliminary information of what the owner wants and then we need to see what we’re in a position to do,” Driggs said in May of 2018.

The Panthers headquarters and practice facility in Rock Hill is by far the biggest example of a public-private partnership that hasn’t gone according to plan.

Fast forward to the present day, and the same councilman, who is privy to closed session discussions between the Panthers and the City, is asking Tepper Sports & Entertainment CEO Nick Kelly about the status of public-private projects, at a Rotary meeting.

Kelly didn’t have an answer to the question, other than saying he expects elected officials to be leading the charge.

“We (TSE) have a seat at the table, we’re not driving the conversation,” Kelly said.

Who is driving and where are questions WBTV is trying to get answers to since hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in both Carolinas are on the line.

The Panthers headquarters and practice facility in Rock Hill is by far the biggest example of a public-private partnership that hasn’t gone according to plan.

Tepper’s GT Real Estate says it terminated the contract with the city and during a news conference last week Tepper said the two sides are just trying to sit at the same table to talk.

“We’re just right now trying to get together and talk and make those arrangements,” Tepper said.

But there are more questions about how much talking there is between the City of Charlotte and Tepper Sports.

Shortly after Charlotte was awarded an MLS franchise, details of negotiations between the City of Charlotte and Tepper Sports started becoming public at the beginning of 2020.

In a letter to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the city council agreed to commit $110 million to the MLS project, with some of it going to the Eastland project that would include the MLS Team Headquarters.

In January 2020, Charlotte Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson hammered home how important TSE would be to the Eastland project.

“Tepper Sports will be that anchor,” Dodson said.

But by October 2020 Dodson said the plan was already morphing and the MLS team headquarters was no longer part of the plan at Eastland.

Instead, the TSE involvement with Eastland would now be limited to the Charlotte FC Elite Academy HQ and public soccer fields.

The negotiations also no longer included tethering the Panthers to Charlotte.

The $110 million deal was now just $35 million, and there was also a promise made about the timeline for developing the proposed Uptown Entertainment District. The District was talked about as a way to attract visitors and foot traffic to the stadium year-round.

“The vision for the Uptown District would be completed in 2021 with a further, more in-depth analysis for a long-term play for the Stadium to follow in 2022,” Dodson said during the October 2020 council meeting.

Neither of those plans has been revealed yet and a source tells WBTV if the Panthers campaign for a new stadium that realistically would not happen this year.

During a news conference before the NFL Draft, WBTV asked Tepper about the Uptown District and Eastland projects, but the owner deflected the topic.

Response to question on Eastland

“Well, today we’re going to talk about football. Okay, that’s what this is and, and I tell you what, I’m going to make you a promise that sometime in the near future, I don’t know when that near future will be, we’ll talk about soccer. But today’s football. If you have a football, facilities on that, I’ll be happy to answer you.”

Response to question on Uptown District

“When we talk about soccer, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll talk about entertainment then too. But just real fast, you know, we bought a lot down there. We have our supporters’ section there. That’s adding to the richness of the city right now. That’s a fact, that’s happened. I’m not going to talk about it anymore than that just very short. Please, you know, I will talk have a soccer conference sometime and we’ll make it entertainment to.”

Response to question on whether soccer, football and public-private deals all fall under same project.

“No, it is. But given that I thought people would want to I want to focus on football, we’re on the verge of the draft here, I’m happy to have those conversations, but I’d rather do them in another time.”

While Tepper neglected to provide details on the projects, sources have confirmed to WBTV that there is some movement behind the scenes.

- Sources confirm to WBTV that conversations between TSE and Charlotte have continued related to Eastland and updates to the current project, specifically related to soccer. City sources have little doubt the Eastland redevelopment will move forward, even though it is currently delayed.

- The Panthers are currently conducting a feasibility study for BOA Stadium. If the study finds there’s another 10-to-15-year lifespan on the stadium, a source tells WBTV the team could consider renovations costing more than $100 million. Mostly back-of-house infrastructure upgrades.

- If/When TSE pursues a new stadium, a source tells WBTV that it would be one stadium for both NFL and MLS but would be a “Panthers first venue.”

The switch to possibly renovating BOA over immediately pursuing a new stadium is another seismic shift, but WBTV’s sources point out that a lot of external factors have influenced some of these changes.

The emergence of COVID has forced a reimagination of office space needs and played a part in the change for the MLS HQ at Eastland.

Additionally, as WBTV first started reporting in 2019 and beyond, there are questions about whether Charlotte has the debt capacity in its Convention Center Fund to help pay for a world-class stadium in the immediate future.

That depends on Tepper’s ask, which is not coming right away.

WBTV requested an interview with Charlotte Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson but that request was denied.

Instead Charlotte spokesperson Cory Burkarth sent WBTV a statement.

“The city has had a four-plus year relationship with David Tepper and Tepper Sports & Entertainment (TSE) since Mr. Tepper purchased the Carolinas Panthers, and the relationship between the city and TSE is active and strong. The city and TSE have ongoing and regular discussions about various projects such as Charlotte FC, Eastland, as well practical needs such as security and traffic control for large events. We look forward to working with TSE and other stakeholders on our shared goal of making Charlotte a great city to live, work and play and a top-tier destination for visitors.”

For all of the press conferences and handshakes, little has actually been set in stone between Charlotte and TSE.

The city has not disbursed any of the $35 million related to the MLS project and stadium upgrades.

The closest Charlotte city council has gotten to a deal is allowing City Manager Marcus Jones to start negotiating. There is not a signed agreement between Charlotte and TSE.

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