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Panthers moving HQ to SC? State leaders confident in game plan to make it happen

No contract has been signed, but the Carolina Panthers and S.C. lawmakers are working on a deal to move the professional football team’s headquarters and training facilities out of Charlotte and across the border into South Carolina.

Gov. Henry McMaster made the announcement Wednesday, standing in front of House and Senate leadership, most of whom attended a private meeting at the Governor’s Mansion that morning with Panthers owner David Tepper to discuss details.

Neither Tepper nor other Panthers employees or members of his legal team attended the press conference.

McMaster said the potential Panthers’ move would include an estimated investment of at least $150 million within four years.

“This is a very exciting moment for South Carolina,” McMaster said Wednesday, adding that talks between Tepper and South Carolina leaders have been going on for months. “Of course, we’ve got a long way to go.”

‘We welcome them with open arms’

State lawmakers already are hoping to push new legislation filed Wednesday through the House and Senate budget-writing committees as quickly as possible. The legislation would make the team eligible for specific incentives — for example, tax breaks and infrastructure improvements — that have been used by state leaders to lure other economic powerhouses such as Boeing in North Charleston and Volvo in Berkeley County. The state’s transportation chief, Christy Hall, also sat in on Wednesday’s meeting, McMaster said.

It remained unclear whether the Legislature would try to spend state dollars in the budget that takes effect July 1 on the venture.

Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Ways and Means chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said it’s too early to say as details are still in flux. But, as to the incentives proposal, Smith said there’s an agreement among all to move that bill forward.

“A professional football team is a big business,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington. “And it involves much much more than where you play your football games.”

McMaster said Tepper expressed interest on Wednesday in moving 150 employees — with an estimated payroll of $190 million a year — to a site in York or Lancaster counties. The State learned Monday that Rock Hill, in York County, could be the landing spot for the site.

A recognizable absence at the press conference were the S.C. lawmakers who represent Lancaster, with the exception of state Rep. Brandon Newton, R-Lancaster, whose district includes a portion of York County. Also, in February, the Panthers met with Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys and U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman of Rock Hill, whose district borders the state line and includes both counties.

“Rock Hill, South Carolina, the motto for us is, “Football City USA,’ ” said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, who attended the meeting with Tepper. “That’s known nationally, ... because (of) the talent that comes out of Rock Hill. Now we have talent coming to South Carolina, and we welcome them with open arms.”

Current NFL players from Rock Hill include former first-round picks Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans, Stephon Gilmore of the New England Patriots and Cordarrelle Patterson, who played last season with the Patriots and who reportedly will play next season with the Chicago Bears.

Speaker Lucas on Wednesday referred to the Panthers’ motto of “One team, two states.” “I believe they have lived by that motto,” he said.

In the 1980s, then-Gov. Carroll Campbell and other South Carolina leaders joined the effort to bring an NFL team to the Carolinas, although Campbell was briefly miffed when the team’s leadership rejected sites in York County in favor of Charlotte for the team’s stadium. Campbell, who died in 2005, soon re-joined the effort.

The Panthers logo is meant to copy the outline of both states, and the team has held its preseason camp at Spartanburg’s Wofford College since 1995.

‘We know we can outrun anyone on the field’

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday he wasn’t surprised to hear the Panthers were eyeing the Palmetto State.

“This is a team that attracts fans from all over the region and multiple states, so the fact that they are talking to South Carolina about a practice facility is not surprising,” Cooper said. “We look forward to having continued discussions with the Panthers leadership.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles told the Observer that although the city has not spoken with Cooper’s office about a joint effort to keep the team’s entire operations in Charlotte, the city intends to work on some sort of retention effort.

“We see the Panthers as a great asset in our city. Of course we want them to be successful and competitive,” Lyles said.

But South Carolina leaders say the investment would be much larger than a practice facility.

McMaster said the property would include practice fields, parking, offices and other necessary facilities. McMaster also said there could be opportunities to build hotels, restaurants and retail shops — an effort to create a destination-like venue, not unlike other sporting venues that have popped up around the country.

“The key for us as a community and as the representatives and our county council and city council is not to blow it,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, R-York, who attended the meeting on Wednesday.

Cooper did not say Wednesday whether North Carolina planned to make a counter offer, but that he would consult with local leaders to determine the next steps the state will take.

“Charlotte has always thought big and that’s why it’s the successful city that it is,” he said. “I think there is time to discuss what needs to happen in the future and what we need to do to make sure we have a continued strong relationship with the Panthers.”

When asked whether he’s worried about competing bids from North Carolina, McMaster said he’s confident a deal will be sealed.

“We’re not concerned about that,” he said. “We’re thinking about South Carolina. We know we can outrun anyone on the field.”

Charlotte Observer reporters Bruce Henderson and Katherine Peralta contributed to this report.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.