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‘Our absolute and professional best’: City leaders speak out about $200M unpaid bonds in Panthers-Rock Hill facility dilemma

The concern over these bonds dates to May 2021.
Last week, Tepper Sports announced it was pausing construction on the project.
Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 6:57 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 15, 2022 at 5:41 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The city of Rock Hill is providing more insight into its side of the Panthers practice stadium debacle.

The city says it did everything it could in its best efforts, but the Panthers, according to the city, are falling short.

“There’s always a risk of failure with these large undertakings,” says Mayor John Gettys.

Gettys spent about 10 minutes at the city council meeting Monday asking the city manager questions about the Panthers deal. Those questions, and answers, sharing their side of the story.

”The city council and the city manager does everything to exercise our best efforts to bring the bonds to market short of risking the credit to the city,” says Gettys.

Construction on the Carolina Panthers’ new headquarters and practice facility in Rock Hill, South Carolina was paused over an alleged missed payment. It is still paused, even though there are some workers still out at the site.

On March 7, The Charlotte Observer cited a source familiar with the situation that said the first phase of the construction was slated to be completed in 2023, but the City of Rock Hill reportedly did not make an obligated payment.

When the Carolina Panthers agreed to build their headquarters in Rock Hill, the city agreed to pay $20 million and issue bonds for much more.

On March 8, WBTV confirmed with a city of Rock Hill spokeswoman that those bonds were never issued. One expert said any money used on a project like this isn’t a good investment for taxpayers.

One of the points made clear Monday was that the city did not want to back stop or guarantee the debt which city manager David Vehaun says they he made clear from the beginning.

“The city would not, could not, should not back stop this debt,” says Vehaun.

Vehaun also says the Panthers were falling short on items they were supposed to provide so they city could issue those bonds. That apparently included project development plans.

”And that information isn’t something the city could provide on anyone’s behalf is that correct?” asks Gettys.

”That’s correct,” replies Vehaun.

Despite these alleged setbacks, Vehaun says everyone was on the same page and the city was ready to issue the bonds.

”We were honestly two weeks away from issuing the debt when we found out that the Panthers asked us to stop,” he explains.

The Panthers apparently asked Rock Hill not to issue any bonds because the team, or rather Tepper Sports and Entertainment, wanted to come up with alternative ways to get the money. Vehaun says the company has every right to do so.

“The city, county and Panthers have come together to discuss some alternatives to the 225 million due in bonds,” says William “Bump” Roddey, county councilmember. “The Panthers were supposed to start here next year but we’re ways away from actually being anywhere near completion.”

A week ago, the city was saying they were unaware of any payment owed.

“The City was unaware of any planned pause in construction of the Panthers facility. The City has met all obligations required under the agreement, and is not aware of any March 2021 payment obligation. The City intends to continue honoring our agreement with the Panthers and fully supports the project,” the City of Rock Hill statement read.

The city of Rock Hill paid the money, but didn’t uphold another part of its agreement - to issue more than $200 million in bonds.

The concern over these bonds dates to May 2021. Panthers Chief Operating Officer Mark Hart wrote to York’s County manager saying “as good-faith partners we have not issued a default.” But the halt shows the Panthers are officially finding the city of Rock Hill in direct violation of the agreement.

Related: Panthers facility in Rock Hill put on hold as city is a year late on payment, source says

We do not know but are trying to find out if York County will get involved in any way, if this will end up in the courts, and what has been stopping the city from issuing the bonds in the first place.

Construction on the Carolina Panthers’ new headquarters and practice facility in Rock Hill, South Carolina has been paused over an alleged missed payment.

The Charlotte Observer provided a statement from Tepper Sports & Entertainment about the situation.

“We are committed to bettering the Carolinas community that supports our team and players. To that end, while GT Real Estate Holdings, LLC has invested more than $170 million into the development in Rock Hill, our partners have been unable to contribute the agreed upon investment to fund the construction of the public infrastructure. “Given the economic realities, the difficult but prudent decision has been made to pause the project. The on-going work will continue with our partners to find an economically acceptable solution for all parties to continue this project in Rock Hill,” the statement read.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster says he’s confident the issues will be resolved between the two sides.

“At the state level, Governor McMaster has done everything necessary to keep this project moving forward. He’s confident that the locals and the Panthers will quickly resolve any outstanding issues and that construction will resume,” Gov. McMaster said.

Even York County Government, which has no financial responsibility in the project, also chimed in about the dilemma.

“York County Government is aware of the announcement by the Carolina Panthers halting construction on the team headquarters and practice facility in Rock Hill. Although York County is not responsible for funding the infrastructure at the site, County staff is in communication with the Carolina Panthers, and hopes to work toward a solution that protects County taxpayers,” the county’s statement read.

The City of Rock Hill claimed to be unaware of any payment obligations.

In Oct 2020, the Carolina Panthers revealed renderings of their new headquarters and practice facility coming to Rock Hill.

Related: Carolina Panthers reveal renderings of HQ, practice facility in Rock Hill, S.C.

It was a joint reveal from the Panthers, York County, and the City of Rock Hill. The mixed-use site was designed to host Tepper Sports & Entertainment and become a destination for people all over the region.

When completed, the development will include restaurants, retail, a healthcare facility, apartments, hotels, trails, and office space.

The facility will also include a 120,000-square foot indoor practice facility, a 113,000-square foot multipurpose sports and entertainment venue, and outdoor practice fields. The indoor practice field features 80-foot tall operable glass doors and can host athletic events and games, concerts, and other corporate events.

Among the team’s amenities will be a 20,000 square-foot weight room, a 6,000 square-foot locker room, and 5,000 square-foot hydrotherapy room to aid players’ rehab and recovery.

Key public-facing areas within the development site are highlighted by “The Park.” That is the 5,000-seat outdoor, multipurpose stadium designed to host events like high school football games, soccer games, concerts, and more.

“The Grove” is the open space within the site that has a series of reflecting pools, lighting, and landscape.

“‘The Park’ itself, with its scalability between 5,000 and as high as 20,000, I think is a great platform for festivals, concerts — all kinds of large ticketed events,” Hart said. “We are working with the Rock Hill school district to make that available for high school sports, high school football, and all kinds of high school activities: proms, gatherings, conferences, and educational programs.”

There will also be approximately 2.5 miles of public trails connected to Rock Hill’s multi-use path system.

The project will include significant improvements to local infrastructure, including a new interchange off of I-77. Over 13,000 feet of new public streets and 2,600 parking spaces are planned in addition to the sidewalks and trails for cyclists, runners, and walkers.

“It’s all designed to look great, feel great, and spur great development opportunities for anyone who wants to come,” Hart said.

Related: Leaders approve incentive deal to bring Carolina Panthers HQ, practice facility to Rock Hill

In April 2020, York County leaders approved the incentive deal centered around the new headquarters and practice facility for the Panthers in Rock Hill.

It was one of the most significant public hearings York County held in years when the final procedural vote on the incentive deal, named “Project Avalanche” came.

Project Avalanche is an economic incentive deal related to the Carolina Panthers headquarters and practice site move from Charlotte to Rock Hill. The plan is to annex the site - currently surrounded by but not included in Rock Hill - into the city.

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