The encouraging backstory of the Panthers’ move to South Carolina

It may have been disconcerting Wednesday to live in North Carolina and see Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper celebrating the move of his team’s headquarters with South Carolina officials. On the surface, it had all the appearances of yet another professional sports owner chasing money wherever it took him. But the opposite may be true with Tepper, and the story behind the Panthers move to Rock Hill should be heartening to those who want the team to keep calling the Carolinas home.

At the least, the move of the Panthers’ HQ signals a commitment to a longer-term vision here. Tepper is promising a world-class practice facility and state-of-the-art sports medicine facility, along with hotel, restaurant and retail. That’s not an investment you make if you plan on leaving the region anytime soon. It is an investment you make if you want your team’s footprint to include both North and South Carolina.

That happens to be what Tepper and team officials have been saying all along, although some, including this editorial board, wondered if Tepper might be flirting with S.C. officials so that he could get a better practice facility deal north of the border. But local and state sources tell the editorial board that Tepper and team officials didn’t try to squeeze more money out of North Carolina. The team never even made an ask of the city, county or governor’s office.

That could be because the Panthers received an extraordinarily good deal from South Carolina — roughly $115 million in tax discounts for what is essentially a mid-sized company. But Tepper, who is clearly an exemplary businessman, never tried to get a better deal back home.

What does that tell us? First, that while history gives Charlotte good reason to be wary of pro sports owners, there’s also reason to believe Tepper when he says something. Local and state officials say that the team also has signaled an interest in increasing its presence in central and eastern NC. The Panthers did not respond to an editorial board request to interview Tepper.

The Panthers’ pact with South Carolina also is stark affirmation that Tepper has a bigger-picture vision for his team than simply new or nicer publicly-financed facilities. Tepper, who has pledged his dollars in making the Rock Hill project a success, has also noted how moving the team’s practice facility could free up valuable uptown land for lucrative development. It’s no great leap to see the team at the center of a sizable retail and entertainment district in uptown Charlotte, too.

South Carolina certainly is ponying up for that development, and like any good businessman, Tepper would probably want a significant (and, in dollars, greater) public investment to expand and improve the Panthers’ footprint uptown. But Tepper is apparently willing to form meaningful partnerships to achieve his vision, not just declare that his team’s brand is all the collateral he needs.

City officials should pursue such a partnership. In case you wondered otherwise, the Panthers just signaled they’re going to be here a while. Charlotte can and should make the most of it.