Billionaire David Tepper threatened Charlotte last week in his latest play to extort hundreds of millions of public dollars from the city.
The setting was a seemingly eleemosynary one: Tepper, who owns the Carolina Panthers, and his wife, Nicole, were in Rock Hill to announce a $500,000 donation to Miracle Park, a fifteen-acre playground for people with disabilities.
The Teppers’ donation is part of the Panthers’ recent, partial migration across the border into South Carolina, where the team’s headquarters and practice facility will relocate.
Tepper — a hedge fund manager worth $14.5 billion, the 41st wealthiest person in America, and the 142nd richest person in the world — used the charitable occasion to remind Charlotte that if the city doesn’t agree to generously subsidize his professional sports teams, the Panthers’ headquarters might not be the only thing moving south.
“At some point, that building will fall down. Like I said before and I’ll say again, I’m not building a stadium alone,” Tepper explained, referring to his desire to replace Bank of America Stadium in uptown Charlotte, home to the Panthers since the team’s 1995 inaugural season. (The stadium is not, in fact, falling down. Nor is there any indication it is going to fall down.)
“The community is going to have to want it. If I’m a third, and the community’s a third, and eventually in the future, personal seat license[s] are a third, or whatever we do, it’s a partnership,” he said.
As the Charlotte Business Journal previously pointed out, based on other, recently built NFL stadiums, the price tag for a new facility in Charlotte could be a couple billion dollars. So if Tepper wants the city to pitch in “a third,” he’s looking for taxpayers to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the project.
The billionaire has said before he expects the city to play ball when it comes to paying for a new stadium.
“[I]t’s going to be with the city. We can’t do stuff by ourselves,” he said in mid-2019.
Then, when Major League Soccer announced in December 2019 it was awarding Tepper the league’s 30th franchise (in exchange for payment of a $325 million fee), Tepper remarked, “I’ve said this from day one: This is all a partnership with the community. I don’t do things alone.”
Make no mistake: These are threats and a form of civic extortion, something apparent to anyone who’s willing to call it honestly.
But so corrupted has our politics become by so-called economic incentives — giveaways of public dollars to the privileged and powerful — few choose to describe the matter truthfully, instead hiding behind euphemism.
Charlotte Councilman Malcolm Graham, for example, when asked about Tepper’s most recent threat, responded by praising “public-private partnerships” as a “hallmark for our community.”
Councilwoman Dimple Ajmeera spoke of a desire to retain a “continued partnership” with Tepper. Councilman Greg Phipps did the same.
It’s the sort of language that’s accompanied past promises to Tepper.
Mayor Vi Lyles, in a November 2019 letter to Major League Soccer, pledged $110 million in city tax revenue to help lure a franchise to Charlotte.
“We have a wonderful, collaborative relationship with Tepper Sports and are aligned on our long-term goals and unified in our vision,” she wrote in correspondence committing the city’s money before Council voted to do so, a slip of the democratic mask that conceals our regime of corrupt cronyism.
When it came time to start hammering out the details of Lyles’s pledge, Councilman Matt Newton echoed the partnership theme. “We’re all in this together, the City of Charlotte and Tepper,” he said.
City staff got in on the action, too: “We have an aligned partnership, but we are in the early stages when it comes to the agreements,” Assistant City Manager Tracy Dodson said around the same time.
Panthers officials have similarly described the relationship.
“They’ve been a great partner,” Panthers president Tom Glick said of the city in a September 2020 interview with the Charlotte Business Journal.
It’s a curious kind of partnership — the partnership of domestic violence or workplace harassment or a protection racket — when one party so casually and consistently threatens to harm the other if she doesn’t accede to his demands.
It’s also accepted practice in our politics today, a corruption so commonplace as to be rendered unremarkable.
Consider all the money recently pledged in service to the Panthers and their billionaire owner.
Let’s start with Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Company, a 120-year-old Charlotte business currently occupying fifty-five acres in uptown within sight of the current stadium and whose land is rumored to be a top prospect for the location of a new stadium.
In spring 2019, the North Carolina General Assembly created a new economic development incentive for so-called “heritage manufacturing employers.” The law applies only to companies in business for at least 100 years that have invested or will invest at least $325 million in the state, plan to keep at least 1,050 employees in the state, and intend to relocate at least 400 of those employees to a smaller, more rural county with a population of less than 63,000.
One company in the state fit this description: Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, which was already considering a move to Stanly County, a rural area about 40 miles east of Charlotte with a 2017 population of 61,500. (The company bought land in Stanly County in 2008 with a $2.5 million state grant, another public give-away, and promptly got the property rezoned for industrial use, though it then sat unused.)
After the legislature created a lucrative glide path for Charlotte Pipe and Foundry to leave Charlotte, Tepper mused aloud in November 2019 that the company’s uptown property might be a good spot for a new stadium.
Then, in May 2020, the State of North Carolina pledged $15 million over ten years to Charlotte Pipe and Foundry under the “heritage manufacturing employers” program.
Around the same time, the Stanly County Board of Commissioners agreed to rebate 80% of the company’s property taxes over a twenty-year period, which would be worth an estimated $35 million. The Oakboro Town Council approved a similar package. (And remember: These incentives weren’t offered to lure a company to North Carolina, the excuse usually offered to justify this kind of legalized bribery, but awarded gratuitously to a company doing business here since 1901.)
Lest anyone think this form of corruption is a partisan matter, consider the “heritage manufacturing employers” program passed the state Senate by a vote of 48-0 and the state House by a vote of 110-3, with the three negative votes cast by two Republicans and one Democrat. The administration of Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, awarded the state grant, and an exclusively Republican county commission extended local incentives to round out the deal. Bribery’s bipartisan.
To tie a ribbon on it, Charlotte Pipe and Foundry filed a rezoning petition in January 2021 for its fifty-five acres in uptown, seeking to change the property’s zoning to “uptown mixed-use district.” Among the land uses allowed in such a district: stadiums.
All that remains once the land is rezoned is for the company to sell the property to Tepper — no doubt at a handsome private profit facilitated by the firm’s publicly subsidized relocation to Stanly County, all of it in service to a billionaire.
Meanwhile, over the course of 2019 and 2020, Tepper landed $385 million in incentives from state and local governments in South Carolina to relocate the Panthers’ headquarters and practice facility to Rock Hill.
This constituted not only a windfall for Tepper and the Panthers, but a warning to Charlotte that Tepper’s loyalties follow his financial interests.
During this same time, Charlotte busied itself proving its devotion to Tepper when Mayor Lyles promised $110 million in public funds to help lure a Major League Soccer franchise. (For good measure, Tepper greased the wheels: He gave Lyles’s reelection campaign the maximum allowable contribution of $5,200 in August 2019, a month before city staff briefed Council in closed session about Tepper’s desire to land an MLS franchise and the likely upcoming request for public dollars to support his efforts.)
Tepper has repeatedly stoked Charlotte’s civic insecurity while working to convince the city its success is tied to his private enrichment.
When MLS announced the city’s franchise in December 2019, Tepper had the savvy to play on Charlotte’s desperation to be viewed as a world-class city, especially when compared to Atlanta.
“We’re the hot city,” Tepper boasted at the press conference. “Screw that other city!”
This argument’s persuasiveness springs from a muddled municipal jingoism, which conceals a system of legalized blackmail adding to Tepper’s wealth in the name of the public good.
It’s the sort of nonsense we hear whenever our government seeks to justify paying bribes to billionaires and businesses, a twenty-first century promise of bread and circuses to distract us in a time of galloping gentrification and exploding inequality benefitting people like Tepper.
“We are a sports city,” Lyles said at the MLS franchise announcement. At the same event, Councilman Graham observed “professional sports are in the DNA of this city,” whatever that means.
“How great do you want the Carolinas to be?” Tepper asked rhetorically in 2019 when discussing the need to develop a plan for local and state governments to offer him hefty tributes to keep the Panthers in town.
He added, “There’s some pride involved here.”
But there’s not. We haven’t any pride. Instead, we grovel before the powerful, and thank them for the privilege of being used.