COLUMBIA — South Carolina government leaders are banding together to convince the Carolina Panthers to move the pro football team's headquarters and practice complex to York County by offering the first of several economic incentives Wednesday.
Gov. Henry McMaster said the economic impact of landing the Panthers would be on par with bringing Boeing's jet plant to North Charleston and BMW's auto plant to Greer.
"When you bring this type of quality, this type of high-profile professionalism into an area, things happen," McMaster said at a news conference flanked by a dozen bipartisan lawmakers.
The first public acknowledgment of the $150 million project by state government leaders came after Panthers owner David Tepper and his legal team met with McMaster and high-ranking South Carolina legislators at the Governor's Mansion on Wednesday morning.
As first reported by The Post and Courier in December, the Panthers would still play its games in Charlotte, but the team plans to move almost all of its other operations over the North Carolina line into York County to an undisclosed site off Interstate 77.
The project could include a sports medical center run by Charlotte-based Atrium Health, McMaster said.
Atrium executives attended the meeting at the mansion along with heads of the state's commerce, transportation, tax and insurance agencies.
Moving team operations could bring more than 150 Panthers players, coaches executives and back office employees to South Carolina.
The team's annual payroll in South Carolina is expected to be $190 million a year, McMaster said.
Construction is expected to start later this year for the complex that could attract neighboring hotels, restaurants, stores and residences.
"A football team is a big business and it involves much, much more than where you play your football games," House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said. "The Carolina Panthers would truly become one team in two states."
The first incentive that must be approved by the state Legislature is a proposed law change defining players as full-time employees because the Panthers would be the first major professional sports team with significant operations in South Carolina, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said.
The bills introduced Wednesday would allow the Panthers to qualify for tax credits for bringing more jobs to South Carolina by adding a definition for pro athletes. NFL teams are allowed to carry up to 63 players during the regular season, including members of the practice squad.
Other incentives will be hammered out later this year after the Panthers choose a final site, but the state's most powerful politician who helped develop packages that brought Boeing and Volvo plants to the Lowcountry said he's firmly behind the effort.
"What I heard, I really liked," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said about the meeting with Tepper. "I'm excited about what we're hoping to get here. I believe it's going to happen."
The incentive, expected to pass within weeks in the General Assembly, could be used to attract another major pro sports team to South Carolina, McMaster said, such as a franchise from Major League Soccer that has eyed Charlotte for expansion.
McMaster said he has no concerns about any potential rival bid from North Carolina for the Panthers: "We know we can outrun anyone on the field."
No news reports have emerged about efforts in North Carolina to keep the team's operations.
“We support their 'two states, one team' orientation," Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said Wednesday. "What’s good for our region is good for all of us."
The Panthers would join a growing number of Charlotte-area companies that have hopped over the North Carolina line in recent years to take advantage of South Carolina’s lower taxes and economic incentives.
The Panthers did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
South Carolina leaders have said Tepper is looking to build a complex similar to a $1.5 billion development opened by the Dallas Cowboys that includes outdoor and indoor fields, team headquarters and a museum, called The Star.
Tepper has not hidden his desire to build new practice facilities after buying the Panthers from Jerry Richardson last year for a league-record $2.2 billion. The team practices near Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, but the facilities lack the state-of-the-art amenities of its NFL rivals.
Tepper, a hedge fund manager who was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, made some inroads in South Carolina by becoming an honorary co-chairman of McMaster’s 2019 inaugural committee. Tepper did not contribute money to the event, the governor's campaign said.
The complex would strengthen the team's ties to the Palmetto State that started with having its first temporary offices and practice facilities at Winthrop University in Rock Hill and playing its inaugural season at Clemson University’s Memorial Stadium.
For two decades, the Panthers have held summer training camp in Spartanburg at Wofford College, Richardson’s alma mater. But the team’s contract with Wofford ends this year, suggesting the Panthers need a new practice site for 2020.
One location under serious consideration for the proposed Panthers complex is the site of the former Knights Stadium and Charlotte Hornets practice facility off I-77 in Fort Mill, 15 miles south of the team’s stadium. But other sites, including some closer to Rock Hill, remain in the mix.
"It's going to be big," Simrill said. "And we want to work with them in every facet as a state to make sure that happens."