ROCK HILL — A drum line, cheerleaders and hundreds of hollering Carolina Panthers fans filled Fountain Park in downtown Rock Hill to celebrate the NFL franchise's plans to build a new headquarters and practice facility in the Palmetto State.
"What a great day for us, what a great day for South Carolina," Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys said during the ceremony Wednesday.
"Today we get to celebrate the biggest economic development project in Rock Hill and York County's history," he said.
Panthers owner David Tepper said he was excited to bring the team across the state line from Charlotte, solidifying the franchise's "two states, one team" slogan. He vowed to maintain a presence in Spartanburg, where the team has held a summer training camp at Wofford College for nearly 25 years.
"The mantra that I'm trying to get into the organization is a mantra of excellence and a mantra of winning, and that's what we're trying to do down here in Rock Hill," Tepper said. "We're going to build a world-class facility down here, too. So this is going to be a showcase down here and bring people down to this region."
Gov. Henry McMaster's ceremonial signing of a bill Wednesday — which he already formally signed last month — allows the Panthers to receive around $115 million in tax breaks for the proposed complex did not come without some struggle.
After sailing through the House earlier this year, the legislation met more resistance in the Senate.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, disputed rosy predictions from the state's Department of Commerce that claimed the facility could result in billions of dollars in economic value for the state — estimates that the department ultimately conceded may have been overstated.
Noting that Tepper is a billionaire hedge fund manager who bought the team for $2.2 billion, Harpootlian and several Republicans argued the state "shouldn’t have to bribe people to come to it." They questioned whether the rest of the state outside York County would see any benefits from the deal.
McMaster and supporters of the measure stepped up lobbying efforts, eventually getting the bill through the Senate with a bipartisan 27-15 vote.
Boosters of the deal say it will lead to new medical facilities, hotels and retail sprouting up around the fast-growing Rock Hill area.
To demonstrate the broad support, York County legislators were joined Wednesday by colleagues from elsewhere around the state, including House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.
"This just shows what can happen when you have a great team of people working together for the common good," McMaster said.
McMaster said the team is still finalizing the construction site but they will have more announcements about that soon.
The Panthers will still play games in Charlotte, about 15 miles from the Rock Hill complex.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, called the bill signing a "watershed moment for Rock Hill and South Carolina."
As a commercial real estate developer, Norman conceded that plans to build a $40 million interchange near the Panthers complex could benefit some of his own properties — but he added that it will boost the entire region, too.
"A rising tide lifts all boats," Norman said. "So as a developer, I see a quality centerpiece, I see an owner with staying power, so I think that's something any state would die for."
Brian Drawdy, a paramedic in Rock Hill, said he was concerned the move wouldn't actually happen when he started to hear about the political disputes surrounding it. But as he took in the celebration Wednesday with his son, Corbin, Drawdy called it a "big win" for his hometown.
"On paper I can understand how it doesn't look great," said Drawdy, 45. "But in the long term I think it'll pay off financially for us and I think it's going to be great for the community if everything they're saying comes to fruition."
Kenny Smith, who runs a construction company in Rock Hill, is hoping the facility could lead to a boon for business. But as a Panthers fan, he said he was also just excited to have a chance to see the team practice.
"The impact locally is going to be incredible," said Smith, 38. "We're creating a sports mecca in Rock Hill, and this is going to just magnify that tremendously."