Politics & Government

Panthers SC talks eye Rock Hill airport upgrades and up to 200 acres for room to grow

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is looking to buy up to 200 acres of land in York County in the Rock Hill area to relocate the NFL team’s headquarters and build new training facilities, according to two sources close to the negotiations.

To facilitate the move, the Panthers and the S.C. governor’s office are discussing potential infrastructure projects to improve traffic flow at I-77 exits in York County, the governor’s office said.

Tepper and Gov. Henry McMaster also are working together to explore whether plans underway to extend the Rock Hill airport’s runway will be enough to meet the Panthers’ needs. If not, state or local officials could lengthen the runway even more, the governor’s office said.

And at a private meeting Wednesday between Tepper and state leaders, Tepper brought up his vision of a light rail system that would connect North Carolina’s Queen City and Rock Hill, four sources told The State. McMaster shares that vision, though the Panthers move is not contingent upon the light rail’s construction, the governor’s office and others said.

Details of the ongoing negotiations between state leaders and Tepper reveal a serious process that has advanced beyond both sides showing preliminary interest. For example, South Carolina lawmakers are working to pass legislation to ensure the team qualifies for economic incentives.

Next week, the House and Senate finance committees are slated to debate that legislation, which would offer job tax and development credits to professional sports teams. The legislation also would allow teams to avoid paying city taxes and business license fees.

Moving the Panthers headquarters and practice facility would be a huge economic boon for the I-77 corridor, state officials have said.

Wednesday, McMaster told reporters the Panthers’ potential move would include an investment of at least $150 million within four years. Tepper, he also said, has expressed interest in moving 150 employees, including the players — and their $190 million a year payroll — to the S.C. site.

Not included in negotiations is the relocation of the Panthers stadium across state lines, three sources told The State.

And, one source said Panthers’ ownership remains committed to keeping its Charlotte Bank of America Stadium, adding Tepper understands the importance and value of leaving the stadium in Charlotte, which broke ground in 1994.

Striking a deal would present a political win for McMaster, one tailor-made for campaign ads in S.C. football country should he seek re-election in 2022. If the deal pans out, McMaster could tout it at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte in August 2020.

When Tepper bought the Panthers last year, he told reporters in July his top priority would be building a new practice facility.

If a deal is reached to open a practice facility in York County, state leaders say it could potentially open the area up beyond just football — think hotels, restaurants and retail, McMaster told reporters Wednesday. Tepper would need a big footprint to do that, and buying up to 200 acres would give him enough to address future needs, one source said.

Meanwhile, the governor’s office is working with the Panthers to decide whether runway expansion efforts at the Rock Hill-York County airport will be enough to cover the team’s needs.

The county’s airport commission Thursday met with Rock Hill and York County leaders, where airport director Steven Gould outlined a proposal for $19 million of needed improvements through 2024. Improvements included extending the runway by more than 1,000 feet and expanding the terminal.

But space for corporate aircraft is of particular concern, with county leaders in recent weeks stressing the need for a longer runway to attract corporate headquarters. “We do have aircraft waiting for that space,” Gould said.

The airport’s five-year funding plan includes almost $14 million from the Federal Aviation Administration, $2.7 million from the state and a little more than $1 million each from Rock Hill and York County.

The State’s Jamie Self and Herald reporter John Marks 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.
Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.