Panthers owner: If SC Senate doesn’t approve incentives, I’ll stay in Charlotte

Panthers owner: If SC Senate doesn’t approve incentives, I’ll stay in Charlotte
Panthers owner: If SC Senate doesn't approve incentives, I'll stay in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/Charlotte Observer) - As a bill that would give $115 million in tax breaks for a Carolina Panthers practice complex in Rock Hill continues to struggle through the S.C. legislature and a vote was pushed to Thursday, team owner David Tepper had a message for lawmakers considering the package:

If you don’t want the team’s project, he’s happy to stay in Charlotte.

“We’d like to be there. Hopefully they help us out there,” Tepper said Wednesday. “But I could be with a (practice) bubble and a cafeteria in Charlotte, too. So it’s up to them,”

Tepper’s comments came after he was honored at West Charlotte High School for paying for buses and hotel rooms for the boys basketball team at the state championship game in Raleigh earlier this month.

“There’s a lot of development we’ll be doing,” he said. “Hopefully at some point we get a (Major League Soccer) team and we do a lot of development with that up here. This would be great, if we could do that development down there.”

The Panthers want to buy up to 200 acres of property in Rock Hill to build a multi-use facility that would include an orthopedic sports medicine facility employing about 200 people and a hotel with at least 150 rooms and space for conferences. It also could attract a corporate headquarters and residential projects, a team official told the State newspaper in April.

The team wants to start construction later this year and move into the complex in the first quarter of 2022.

“It’s going to cost us a lot of money to go down to South Carolina,” said Tepper. “We’re going to have to put out real money to go down there. So it’s not like we get that money from South Carolina, and that’s it. There’s a lot of money in a facility that we have to invest.

“They’ll have to make a decision whether they want it or not ... I’ll stay in Charlotte. I could stay home.”

Freshman state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, blocked the incentives bill in March to force the governor and state Commerce Department to release its projections about the deal’s economic impact for South Carolina.

Harpootlian, who was unsatisfied with the in-house numbers and hired an independent economist to call those projections into question, lifted his objection to the bill during a lengthy debate on Tuesday. But he urged his colleagues not to vote for it.

“I’ve come to the troubling conclusion that the Panthers’ proposal is precisely as ill-defined and unvetted as has been represented to us and that it rests on a series of flawed assumptions,” he said Tuesday during a nearly 20-minute floor speech that outlined his concerns with the bill.

Thursday’s vote is the last day of the 2019 legislative session. The bill passed easily through the House of Representatives in March, cruising through just two weeks after the proposal was announced.

But since its introduction into the Senate, the tax breaks bill that would make such a move feasible in the mind of Tepper has met increasing criticism, punctuated Tuesday by Harpoolitan’s effort to appeal to both Senate Democrats and Republicans.

Senators from all over South Carolina have asked why they should support tax breaks that benefit only the north-central region of the state. Others wondered aloud why they should offer tax breaks to a team whose owner is worth more than $11 billion, according to the State.

“We spent more time in a committee talking about whether miniature horses ought to be considered service animals than we have discussing this bill,” Harpootlian said.

He then asked Republican senators how they would explain to their constituents “this massive piece of corporate welfare to benefit a single corporation and its billionaire owner, and asked his fellow Democrats how they plan to explain “Why one billionaire received a $40 million infrastructure project and $115 million in tax giveaways when so many of our most vulnerable citizens’ needs remain unaddressed.”

Tepper was asked Wednesday if he was surprised the bill had received such pushback.

“It’s politics,” he said. “I’m old. I’ve seen it before. I’m not surprised.

“But listen. We’d like to go there. Hopefully we can. And I said the first day when I was in the building, I’d like for this to be a two-state team. That’s a part of that. I do believe that most of the people in South Carolina want this, and I think it will get done.”

The State reporters Avery Wilks and Maayan Schechter contributed to this report.