Two states, one team. That's the adoptive motto of the Carolina Panthers as they continue to try and unite North and South Carolina together around the organization.
When David Tepper bought the franchise from Jerry Richardson in 2018, one of the first things that came to Panthers' fans mind was where the team would be playing in the future. Would they remain in Charlotte? Could they move to South Carolina? Would a new stadium be built in uptown? There was a lot of uncertainty as to what Tepper wanted to do. When he bought the plot of land in Rock Hill, the initial rumor was that's where the team would be moving to altogether. Then, the announcement came out that the team would be moving its headquarters and practice facility there while games would still be played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
The new pad in Rock Hill was set to be the best training facility in the NFL and would be something that would really drive an economic boom in the Rock Hill community and in the state of South Carolina. Unfortunately, things have come to a screeching halt after the Panthers accused Rock Hill of not providing the payments for the public infrastructure of the project. Rock Hill had been warned that if payments were not made in thirty days that they would end the agreement completely. The City of Rock Hill responded, stating that the claims made by the Panthers were "misleading and erroneous."
So, as we sit today, there is roughly $170 million worth of steel sitting in the ground and a partial built facility that was starting to take shape. Unless the two agree to new terms, the lot could sit vacant for quite some time until a new plan is developed.
Recently, I spoke with Rep. Ralph Norman, who serves the 5th congressional district of South Carolina who has years of experience as a real estate developer. He, too, was just as shocked as the residents of Rock Hill that this project came to an end this far into it.
"This has been a five-year process," Norman said. "We've been to the site and the interchange is moving along. They got the building up, much of the steel set and ready for a roof - it's a massive structure. Really, it's been hush, hush. The Panthers have really not said anything other than in their minds the city didn't follow through on some financing. Now, the city disputes that but from all appearances, it's pretty much a dead deal which is so unfortunate. The centerpiece of this 240-acre track was going to be the training facility that would attract a lot of different uses and the land surrounding it. It's a strange deal to not have any comment and really, to go to this length in the construction process is rare, in any case. I'm a developer. We've done a lot of projects and to have it go to this stage and to have a showstopper like this is strange, at best."
Considering how strange this situation is and given Tepper's history as a businessman, something doesn't add up. How in the world could something like this happen? How does a project that costs $800 million have so many issues with it this far along in the construction? These are questions that Norman is wondering himself.
"David Tepper is one of the smartest people in the business. He's the richest owner of all the team owners which puts him in an elite class. Really, something else must be going on because a fella that's experienced like he is doesn't wait until the last minute and not have everything ironed out before he digs footings and clears the property. So, something must have changed. Or, it may be a leverage position with Charlotte to try to get them on board with the new stadium. Or it could be a combination of the two. To stop construction mid-stream, now is the time to, if you were moving forward, summer months is when you make your progress in construction. You don't wait until the winter months because time is money. First thing they're going to have to do is spell out what they want from the city or spell out what they think was not followed through with and hammer that out. But to my knowledge, they're not even talking. The last time that they had met with any group was the county council."
Obviously, for the project to be salvaged, the two sides are going to have to sit down and have conversations about what is expected of both parties. In his first appearance in front of the media for the first time in nearly two years, Tepper repeatedly declined to comment on the situation in Rock Hill, per the request of the city so that this would not turn into a public back and forth dispute.
"We released a statement already and we will respect the City of Rock Hill's request. We will sit down with these guys and have a conversation. I'm going to respect their request. I'm sorry, I just am. If you look at our statement, I think it did talk about trying to sit down with them and have conversations at this point. I'm not going to comment further than that. It's in our statement."
So, what happens if the Panthers and Rock Hill can't come to terms on a new agreement? Well, Tepper still owns the title to the property, so it will be up to him what he does with it, as Congressman Norman said.
"Any 240 acre track of land that has interstate frontage, has an interchange, has got water, sewer, all the things that make a site viable - this site has it. Now, it does have some rock issues. I do know Mr. Tepper, his organization hit a tremendous amount of rock that is very expensive and is only somebody with his financial means could have handled that. I don't know of another developer that could've dealt with that because it's just an expensive proposition. But it could be industrial, commercial.
"The whole emphasis of having it in Rock Hill was to have a track of land that wasn't a single use track that would only house one building. $800 million was slated to be spent for the entire project. The surrounding properties were going to be hotels, convenient stores, gas stations, restaurants, everything that you would want for a town. If it ends up being completely terminated, the property is still there, it's got an interchange with it and some use will be found for it. It just won't be on the scale that the Tepper organization was going to be able to do. The property isn't going anywhere, but it'll take some time. You're looking at thousands of people coming into the area and really, benefiting the whole state."
The project was initially set to be completed in 2023, but with all work completely coming to a stop, this will set back that opening date quite a while, obviously. The biggest problem for Tepper moving forward is assembling a large enough team to make serious time up on the facility. When the agreement ended, construction workers went elsewhere for other jobs, so to getting a crew back on the site won't be as easy as one would think, especially with the reputation this job has with it.
"It could take a pretty long period of time because the scale of numbers that he employed were huge," said Norman. "Whether or not he could back together, I don't know. He's missed this year for sure. You just can't jumpstart this from a dead stop position that he's got."
As much as everyone involved would like to see both parties to see eye to eye, it is becoming increasingly unlikely by the day. Tepper said that he would like to sit down and have a conversation, but what does that entail? Can anything come from that? Or is this more about the legal aftermath rather than trying to save the project? It's going to be a big loss for Rock Hill and the entire state of South Carolina.
"From the financial side, it's unbelievable," Congressman Norman said on the potential loss of the facility. "The payback on something like this and what it means to the community with having this much land around a facility that's going to draw thousands of people is unfathomable. My thoughts, it's going to be hard to resurrect this. I liken it to analogy when an experienced pilot takes off to the west coast on a quarter of a tank of gas and not be able to stop. I mean, when he put up footings, he was going. David Tepper is very experienced, he knows what he's doing, he's very bright. That's the reason I put the odds on this getting jumpstarted back very slim, at this point."
You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us Twitter:
Facebook - @PanthersOnSI