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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 1:57 PM

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Panthers seek help for stadium improvements

When Charlotte landed a National Football League franchise 20 years ago, city leaders were ecstatic, calling it a critical step in putting North Carolina's largest city on the map.

Associated Press

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

When Charlotte landed a National Football League franchise 20 years ago, city leaders were ecstatic, calling it a critical step in putting North Carolina's largest city on the map.

It seemed that the city's explosive growth - when it became a major financial industry center - coincided with the rise of the Panthers.

But now the city and the franchise are at a crossroads. The Carolina Panthers want to renovate the outdoor 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium.

And the team is asking the public for help.

On Monday, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and team President Danny Morrison met with new Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis to discuss the multimillion-dollar project. Both politicians are from the Charlotte area, and McCrory was the city's mayor for 14 years. His first term was in 1995, the Panthers' inaugural season.

Tillis said Tuesday that discussions have been preliminary but that there are fears from city and state leaders that the Pantherscould move if they don't receive help.

Tillis said he's treating the Panthers like any other large business in North Carolina. He said the team creates 4,400 direct jobs and an estimated 1,500 indirect jobs. Moving the team out of the state is a real concern, Tillis said.

"They are a major employer in North Carolina," said Tillis, adding that he meets with major businesses in the state "that are considering moving somewhere else, and that is a very real possibility for the Panthers."

He said, though, there haven't been many details so far about what the team wants.

"I've been clear with the Panthers organization that it is not appropriate to have state taxpayer dollars go directly into the stadium, so that's more or less a level set on our part," he said.

Two weeks ago, Richardson met with City Council in a private session to talk about the money.

The city has been doing most of the negotiations behind closed doors. The Panthers are seeking money from both the city and state to help offset the proposed $250 million project.

One possible funding source: Doubling the prepared food and beverage tax to 2 percent. The state's General Assembly would have to approve the tax increase.

In Charlotte, people are talking about it.

"We should do everything we can to save the Panthers," said Troy Taylor, 44, a financial analyst and Panthers fan. "It's an NFL team. It helps with the city's profile - especially when they play on national TV. They've become a big part of the city."

But Shirley Parker wonders if the team should ask for taxpayer dollars.

"Do they really need the money? Why can't they pay for it themselves? Why do sports teams always turn to the public?" asked the 55-year-old teacher.

Mayor Anthony Foxx has declined to discuss the talks. But he said this week that the city would like to build on the success of this past summer's three-day Democratic National Convention, which drew 35,000 people to Charlotte and pumped nearly $164 million into the local economy. That includes bidding to host a Super Bowl.

Charlotte is home to the headquarters of Bank of America and major operations for Wells Fargo, two of the largest U.S. financial institutions. Both are in the central business district, within walking distance of the stadium.

The Panthers' stadium, which cost $190 million, was completed in 1996.

It was paid for with private money collected through the sale of permanent seat licenses or PSLs, with the Panthers being the first NFL franchise to use that marketing model to raise money.

Seventeen years later, Bank of America Stadium is considered a middle-aged stadium 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.

The Panthers invested more than $48 million in recent years on new scoreboards, club level seating and upgraded workout and equipment rooms.

Public stadiums dotted the map for most of the 20th century, but the pace of public-private partnerships for new construction or renovation projects has accelerated over the past two decades.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones now controls a $1.15 billion stadium that Arlington, Texas, voters helped finance with increases in sales and hotel taxes. In Indianapolis, the state owns 4-year-old Lucas Oil Stadium, for which the state, city and surrounding counties covered most of the $720 million construction cost.

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Gary D. Robertson contributed to the story

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