On a little two-lane road in the heart of downtown Spartanburg, The Crepe Factory’s sign stands out among the dark brick buildings on Main Street.
Up and down the road, Carolina Panthers flags are flying and fans are walking around on every corner. Inside the restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch crowds, and out on the patio, the chatter from the multitude of diners in Panthers attire makes it hard to hear anyone — but that doesn’t matter.
Sharply contrasting this bustling daytime scene, Delaney’s Irish Pub is a few doors down. While it’s darker during the day, the sports bar comes alive at night, especially this time of year.
The Carolina Panthers are back in town.
Wherever you looked in Spartanburg this week, there was Panther blue. Even the high temperatures under the blazing afternoon sun couldn’t keep fans from heading to Wofford College’s practice fields to watch their NFL team work out, because deep down they knew this could be the last time.
“I know they probably are going to start doing this up in Rock Hill,” said James Oglesby, an Army diesel mechanic and cadet instructor at Wofford. “We’ve enjoyed them being in our community.”
When Oglesby was growing up, there wasn’t an NFL team for the local kid to pull for. When the Panthers were founded in 1993 and began playing in the NFL in 1995, he became an instant fan. Living 10 miles from campus, his family hasn’t missed a year of training camp yet. But now, with the future of the Panthers’ training camp location in question, the Oglesbys know one thing for sure: They’ll travel to see the Panthers train, but not as often.
For the past 25 years, the Panthers have summered at Wofford, the alma mater of former team owner Jerry Richardson. But that contract ends this year, and new owner David Tepper will build a new headquarters and practice facility that’s expected to open in Rock Hill in 2021 or ‘22. What isn’t clear, though: Where will camp be held in 2020?
What is clear is that the Panthers’ relationship with Spartanburg has an expiration date.
Which means so does Spartanburg’s tourist season that was created thanks to the region’s top professional sports franchise. Businesses thrive on the four weeks a year when Panthers fans from around the Carolinas converge on this city, 74 miles southwest of Charlotte.
“In the past couple years, we definitely have seen more tourism,” said Denise Mehl, who owns and manages The Crepe Factory. “We can tell just by speaking with our guests and reviews that are written that people are from out of town, and we are seeing that increase. And we definitely see a greater increase this time of the year due to training camp.”
Hotels, such as the Spartanburg Marriott located a few blocks from Wofford, sell out during the early days of training camp. Local and small chain restaurants are filled before and after each practice. Following Day 1 of camp Thursday, fans walked through the local park on Main Street and ate ice cream inside Spill the Beans, a unique coffeehouse and creamery. Others filled sports bars to the rim, grabbing a bite to eat after the late practice.
Friday morning, The Crepe Factory was hustling and bustling with waves of customers clad in black and blue.
“You can see the excitement in town with it being the 25th anniversary of them being here,” Mehl said. “You can definitely feel the excitement in the air that the Panthers are back.”
Possibly for the last time, but locals aren’t ready to give up hope.
“I know just as a business person, we’re hoping that that they’ll continue to come back periodically and that maybe we might get them again next year,” Mehl said.
For Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, Wofford and Spartanburg are almost a second home. It’s where he started his training camp days with the team in 2012. Over the last few years, he’s stayed in the same room — Shipp Hall 136.
“That’s my room,” Kuechly said. “I’ve got it all set up how I want it. I don’t know what’s going on with it down here, but I enjoy coming down here every year.”
For now, fans and Spartanburg don’t want to think about the future.
“It’s pretty awesome because with us being far away from the stadium, we don’t get up there (to Charlotte) as much,” Oglesby said. “For them to come in this area, it does a lot for the community, too.
“A lot of businesses, it helps them out and everything, so it’s going to be kind of sad to see them go.”