COLUMBIA — The Carolina Panthers are closer to receiving up to $115 million in tax breaks if the NFL franchise builds a new headquarters and practice facility in York County after the South Carolina Senate approved a change in state law Thursday.
The 27-15 vote provided a significant boost for the team's plans to construct a new complex off Interstate 77 near Rock Hill and ended a months-long feud in the Legislature over whether the incentives package is worth it for the state.
Several lawmakers expressed concern about giving tax breaks to a team owned by a billionaire hedge fund manager, questioning whether the package was necessary to lure the franchise to South Carolina, disputing the claimed economic benefits to the state and complaining about the rushed legislative process.
But Gov. Henry McMaster urged the Legislature to approve the deal, arguing the proposed Panthers' complex would "bolster South Carolina’s prestige and ‘brand’ around the world."
McMaster, who compared the complex to some of South Carolina's biggest economic development projects like BMW and Boeing, has said the Panthers facility would draw nearby hotels, residences and stores. "Going to be a big deal," McMaster told Panthers owner David Tepper after the vote Thursday.
A day before the vote, Tepper warned that the team would keep its operations in Charlotte if the tax incentives package did not pass because he said it will cost the franchise "a lot of money" to move down to South Carolina.
On Thursday, team leaders touted what they called an "exciting day."
“This legislation is an important step in bringing a transformative development to South Carolina," team president Tom Glick said. "We believe this will be an incredible economic driver for the region, and help build a championship team on the field and in the community."
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, who has led the push to bring the facility to his home county, praised his colleagues for working to get the deal approved.
"This has been a quick fight, legislatively speaking, but an arduous one," said Simrill, R-Rock Hill. "South Carolina wins with the Panthers having a state-of-the-art practice facility and all that is ensconced by that with economic development, job creation and just the opportunity for us to be one team in two states."
The Senate amended the bill previously approved in the House to limit its scope to the next three years, meaning other professional sports teams would likely have to seek approval from the Legislature again for any similar deals in the future.
Negotiators from the House and Senate will need to hammer out differences before the bill hits McMaster's desk. The Legislature will return for a one-week session on May 20.
Senators rejected proposed amendments to block state funds from going towards the construction of a $40 million interchange on Interstate 77 as part of the project or to require the Panthers to play two regular season home games in South Carolina.
A colorful, multi-hour debate on the Senate floor Thursday veered off-topic at times.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, noted that Tepper once referred to President Donald Trump as a "demented, narcissistic scumbag," prompting a partisan back-and-forth between lawmakers over whether Trump or former President Barack Obama have been more disrespected.
Tepper, who bought the Panthers last year for a league-record $2.2 billion, has worked on forming ties in South Carolina. He was an honorary co-chairman of McMaster’s 2019 inaugural committee and contributed $1,000 to the governor's campaign in January.
The Panthers were formed in the mid-1990s as a team for both Carolinas, with a slogan of "two states, one team." Moving the team’s headquarters and practice facilities about 15 miles south of its Charlotte stadium would be considered part of that branding.
The team had its first temporary offices and practice facilities at Winthrop University in Rock Hill and played its inaugural season in 1995 at Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium.
For two decades, the Panthers have held summer training camp in Spartanburg at Wofford College. The team’s contract with Wofford ends this year.
Moving team operations could bring more than 150 Panthers players, coaches executives and back office employees to South Carolina.
The Panthers plan to start construction on the York County complex this year with a 2022 opening.