Panthers expected to follow familiar playbook for incentives over NC or SC expansion

Potential Carolina Panthers training location

Panthers owner David Tepper has made facility improvements a priority in the short term, particularly for the team’s practice facilities. Several recent media reports have indicated that the Panthers are honing in on sites in York County, S.C.
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Panthers owner David Tepper has made facility improvements a priority in the short term, particularly for the team’s practice facilities. Several recent media reports have indicated that the Panthers are honing in on sites in York County, S.C.

Over the years, South Carolina has used tax incentives and cheap land to lure thousands of Charlotte jobs across the state line, including the relocation of RoundPoint Mortgage Servicing Corp., LPL Financial and Movement Mortgage, among others.

South Carolina’s business-friendly climate is likely to be similarly attractive to the Carolina Panthers as they consider where to build new practice facilities and a team headquarters.

The team’s evaluation process to find those sites is ongoing, and York and other nearby S.C. counties are likely under consideration. “I view this as the Carolina Panthers in both states, so we have to think about where we’re putting things,” owner David Tepper said during his introductory press conference at Bank of America Stadium in July.

The existing practice facilities are right next Bank of America Stadium in uptown Charlotte. Freeing up space next to the stadium would allow the team to tap into new revenue streams in the form of Panthers-anchored real estate ventures, as the Observer has reported.

That’s already being done elsewhere in the league: The Dallas Cowboys, for instance, have The Star in Frisco, a suburb 40 miles from their stadium that includes team headquarters and practice facilities, along with a 16-story hotel, 20 restaurants and stores. The Cowboys had the city of Frisco pay for the $115 million complex with public money.

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In weighing options for the campus outside of uptown Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers may follow a pattern by drumming up interest from both Carolinas to get the best deal for funding the effort, experts say.

The project could have far-reaching impacts, from tourism spending to new development, for either state.

“If you have two competing states, you could get a good deal,” said Tom Regan, graduate director of the University of South Carolina’s sport and entertainment management department.

The Panthers have already been able to make a number of deals with the city, county and state over the years.

Last summer, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law exempting the Panthers from paying property taxes on Bank of America Stadium, which is on city-owned land that the Panthers rent for $1 a year. That will save the team up to $350,000 a year. It’s possible that a new campus could also be exempt if it’s on city-owned land.

Fans likely don’t need to worry about a stadium move across state lines, however: Tepper has said repeatedly that he sees uptown Charlotte as the logical place for the stadium.

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Other moves

A number of other companies have recently shopped around for the best deal before landing in Charlotte.

For instance, AvidXchange had considered adding over 1,200 jobs in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, all of which offered millions in incentives, before ultimately landing on its hometown Charlotte, thanks in large part to nearly $25 million in incentives from the city, county and state. LendingTree similarly considered 20 locations in several states for its 436-job expansion before deciding on Charlotte, thanks to an incentives package that totals nearly $10 million.

The Charlotte metro has lost business to South Carolina in recent years, too, however.

When it spun off from Charlotte-based Sealed Air last year, the cleaning products company Diversey announced plans to move its headquarters to Fort Mill.

That move was made possible through a grant from South Carolina, according to David Swenson, director of York County Economic Development, who previously was an executive with the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

Swenson said offering incentives and other perks are ways a region can give itself a competitive edge.

“You have to do what’s best to mitigate the cost risk in losing the project,” said Swenson, who declined to comment on the Panthers campus.

Leaders of both Carolinas are already working to get on the radar of Tepper.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster announced this month that Tepper would be one one of 15 honorary co-chairs of his inaugural committee. “This is a part of the relationship building experience,” between Tepper and McMaster, said Caroline Anderegg, spokeswoman for the governor’s inaugural committee who declined to comment on development plans.

And last week, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper visited Bank of America Stadium to thank Tepper and defensive end Julius Peppers for their Hurricane Florence relief efforts. “The Panthers have an exciting future under their new leadership and the governor appreciates the strong ties between the team and communities across North Carolina,” spokesman Ford Porter said in an email.

If the Panthers picked York or another nearby county in South Carolina, the team’s entire operations would technically remain in the Charlotte metro area. Still, having the campus in a county or state other than Mecklenburg and North Carolina could provide a lower tax rate for the team’s corporate employees, and provide a tax revenue boost for the new host location.

“The modus operandi of the Panthers will initially involve a modest bargaining ... triangle between at least two alternative relocation sites, like the two Carolinas,” said John Vrooman, a sports economics professor at Vanderbilt University.

But, Vrooman said, subsidizing a private business doesn’t always provide an economic boost to the state.

“Most of the economic gains will accrue to the Panthers and project developers and leak out of the local economy like a sieve,” he said.

‘Keeping up with the Jonses’

Tepper has made it clear that new practice facilities are a priority. By league standards, the team is unique in that its practice fields are outdoors and adjacent to the stadium itself.

The Panthers are “simply keeping up with the Jonses by building separate practice facilities,” Vrooman said.

The team has three practice fields (two natural grass, one artificial turf) that take up 7 acres, which is roughly the size of three department stores. The three fields, together with the stadium and other team-owned property takes up 33 acres, according to the team’s website.

In other words, that’s a lot of space that could be freed up for new development, whether in the form of something like a new entertainment district, or a mixed-use property that includes residences and retail.

“If we do move the practice field next to some place other than right next to the stadium, which makes so much sense, you do open up a lot of area for ... other development here,” Tepper said in his introductory press conference.

The new practice facilities could include outdoor fields as well as an indoor bubble that would house a field, weight rooms and physical therapy rooms, said Regan, the South Carolina professor.

Offices in the belly of the stadium could be moved, and the space could be converted into corporate event space or other revenue-generating space.

Moving corporate functions elsewhere would mean the new state would collect the payroll taxes of several hundred team employees, but that sum “isn’t going to be as significant as you’d think,” Regan said. After all, the salaries of employees who travel (players, coaches and team personnel) are taxed in the locations where games are played (thanks to a levy commonly referred to as the “jock tax”).

Hornets in Fort Mill

If the Panthers move their practice facilities to South Carolina, it wouldn’t be the first time that a Charlotte pro team has straddled the state line.

In the early 2000s, when the Charlotte Hornets played their home games at a coliseum on Tyvola Road and practiced in Fort Mill, the city of Charlotte was considering using public funds to pay for a new arena uptown that would house not only the team’s home court but also practice courts and offices.

Moving the practice facility back to North Carolina was projected to generate an additional $45 million to $55 million in N.C. tax revenue over 25 years, team co-owner Ray Wooldridge said, according to a January 2001 Observer story.

Former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory was mayor of Charlotte when the city decided in 2002 to spend $265 million to build the NBA arena uptown, despite the fact that voters had rejected the plan in a non-binding referendum about a year and a half prior.

The city ended up relying on an increase in the rental car tax and the hotel-motel tax to pay for the bulk of the project. The tax revenue that resulted from the team and personnel living and working in Charlotte was a perk, McCrory told the Observer last week, but it wasn’t the driver of having the facility uptown.

Rather, it was to have all team functions in a central location, and to help land major events that could bolster Charlotte’s profile, McCrory said. And the new arena design was more in line with what the rest of NBA was doing at the time, he added. In other words, the Hornets were “keeping up with the Jonses.”

“The Tyvola location was an old college design,” McCrory said. “The new pro designs had luxury boxes. New arenas weren’t as big either. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was a contest of who could have the biggest.”

Ed Tapscott, president of Charlotte’s NBA team (then the Bobcats) from 2002-2006, said a goal of having a centrally located arena was to host a slew of events that aren’t just NBA-related. He also noted that the arena uptown is one of the few practice facilities in the NBA that lets people watch from the street.

“We committed when we built the facility downtown to try to open up opportunities to engage with the Charlotte fan base not just on game days but on practice days,” Tapscott said.

As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.