COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Carolina Panthers took a big step Wednesday in bringing a part of the team’s operations to South Carolina.
Just before noon, Gov. Henry McMaster -- who met hours earlier with Panthers’ owner David Tepper -- told Channel 9 the franchise is looking to build a state-of-the-art facility in either York County or Lancaster County.
The meeting between McMaster and Tepper, which was also attended by several South Carolina lawmakers and the state secretary of transportation, lasted about an hour.
McMaster said he was excited about meeting with Tepper.
"This is a unified effort to bring a practice facility and moving 150 employees, including players, coaches, marketing, HR and other staff," he said.
A source inside the meeting told Channel 9 anchor Allison Latos this was the first time the team outlined their vision for a world-class training facility.
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Sources also said the team has eyed several locations, but that Rock Hill is a strong front runner to land the new facility.
Sources close to the talks with the Panthers said if a prospective site is chosen in Rock Hill, it would likely mean a new interchange and exit on I-77. DOT leaders have been asked to provide cost figures for several possible projects.
Sources said if an interchange was built, it would not be paid for with the money from the state's new gas tax.
Sources have also added that a light rail is reportedly part of Tepper's vision for the new team headquarters.
According to the State newspaper, Tepper brought up the idea during the meeting Wednesday of a light rail system connecting Charlotte and Rock Hill. McMaster was reportedly behind the idea.
Charlotte's Blue Line stops at I-485 and South Boulevard. Transportation officials said they have already been given the OK to start studying extending the Blue Line to Pineville and Ballantyne.
The practice facility would not just be a place for players to work out. Channel 9 was told Tepper wants a world-class destination that would include shops and restaurants which would attract visitors and businesses, and would have a huge economic impact.
A source close to the meeting told Channel 9 Tepper envisions a destination that will rival those of other NFL teams.
The Dallas Cowboys’ Star District is 91 acres, including shops, restaurants and a hotel. It holds the Ford Center, a 12,000-seat indoor stadium.
The Minnesota Vikings moved into the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center last summer. The development houses an outdoor stadium, four outdoor fields and one indoor field.
"If the facility is built here, it would include practice fields, parking lots, offices and other facilities desirable for success and include an investment of at least $150 million within a 4-year period," McMaster said.
Officials said they’re excited about the ripple effect that could attract other businesses to the region, and specifically mentioned Tepper's interest in professional soccer.
Moving the Panthers employees to South Carolina could bring $190 million in payroll taxes. Lawmakers said they will be introducing legislation with bipartisan support to allow professional sports teams tax credits, including amending rules on hours players must work in South Carolina for the credits.
South Carolina Rep. Gary Simrill told Channel 9, "The Panthers are givers, not takers. They want to be a part of 'Team Carolina.' This is monumental. South Carolina is the best place to live, work and play football."
State lawmakers said they are also taking quick action to help the Panthers get to South Carolina. A bill to allow pro-sports teams to have some of the same business dealings with the state that major corporations do is being fast tracked and will be up for a vote as soon as next week.
The Panthers currently practice on a field along Cedar Street in uptown, right next to Bank of America Stadium, but the facilities are not what Tepper has in mind for the players.
The new owner has talked about wanting the team to play in an indoor state-of-the-art facility. He also said he wants that to happen by next season.
Currently, when it rains, the team uses a hotel conference room to practice in. Last month, the team decided it will build a temporary practice bubble for the upcoming season.
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The team used to practice at Winthrop University years ago.
There are still many details to work out before a decision is made on the new practice facility, and an exact location still has not been determined.
Lancaster County leaders told Channel 9 they pitched several sites in Indian Land and put a package together for the Department of Commerce to try and lure the team there. However, they said they have not spoken with the Panthers and were surprised to hear the county was mentioned as a possible site.
"If Lancaster were fortunate enough to be selected, obviously, bad cliché, but it would be a game changer to have something with that high profile come,” Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said.
York County leaders are hoping it lands in their area.
Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys called the Panthers' announcement not just a game changer, but transformational.
“There’s a big world out there, and I think a lot of people in our community don't realize how big that world could be,” Gettys said.
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