CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Charlotte's city council voted unanimously Monday night to approve an agreement to provide $87.5 million for upgrades to the team's 17-year-old stadium in exchange for a commitment to stay in North Carolina's largest city for at least another six years.
The council's action came on a voice vote. It means the city will contribute $87.5 million in hotel tax and food and beverage tax revenues for renovations to Bank of America Stadium, which is less than the NFL team was seeking for improvements.
With Panthers owner Jerry Richardson sitting in the packed City Council chambers, Mayor Anthony Foxx said Charlotte had to take steps to keep the team in North Carolina's largest city. Like others on the council, Foxx praised the Panthers, saying the team had contributed to the city's sense of community and helped Charlotte's national image.
"In many ways, you have put Charlotte on the map," he said.
Foxx also expressed concern that without the improvements, the Panthers would move.
Looking at the audience — some of whom held signs opposed to the deal — Foxx said he understood "both side of the debate." Some speakers had called the deal a form of corporate welfare and that the Panthers had the money to make the improvements without taxpayer money.
But Foxx warned the entire city would feel the sting if the team left.
"We're trying to keep something good happening here," he said.
The 76-year-old Richardson, who had a heart transplant a few years ago, said the deal was important to assuring the Panthers would stay in Charlotte upon his death.
During a presentation highlighting the deal, city officials said the Panthers would be sold no later than two years after Richardson's death. And there were worries that, without improvements, a new owner would move the team to another market, such as Los Angeles, which doesn't have a NFL team.
Richardson told the council that it was important to keep the Panthers tethered to Charlotte.
"My interest is to guarantee the future of this franchise in the Carolinas. I've made it clear that I would never move the team," he said.
After the vote, Richardson again addressed the council. This time, he said he hoped in the future that he could change the views of people in the crowd who opposed the deal.
Before he left, he joked that if fans wanted to see the team remain in Charlotte, "say a prayer for me," referring to his health.
The initial plan called for an improvement package that totaled $250 million. The city would have paid half of that, along with other money for stadium maintenance and traffic control costs. The state and the team would have paid for the rest of the project.
That plan would have resulted in a 15-year commitment by the team to stay in Charlotte.
But state lawmakers rejected an increase in the local prepared food and beverage tax for the stadium. Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, and legislative leaders also declined to give the team any state money. Republicans control the governorship and the Legislature.
In addition to the six-year commitment to keep the team in Charlotte, city leaders say there is an additional clause that would make it likely the team will stay at least 10 years, though the Panthers could leave without many difficulties.
The first phase of the improvements will include escalators to take fans to the upper deck. The Panthers will also install new video boards and improve the sound system.
Dropped from the original improvement plan are club seats and improvements in the suites. Also, there will be no money for a new practice facility or larger entry gates and ticket office.
The Panthers' stadium is considered middle-aged by NFL standards. Of the 31 stadiums in the league — the Giants and Jets share one in New Jersey — 25 have either been built or undergone renovations in excess of $100 million since the Panthers opened their facility. Three others in Atlanta, San Francisco and Minnesota are in the midst of either rebuilding or new stadium construction.
Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium is considered a comparable stadium and it received a $375 million facelift in 2010.