That the NFL’s Carolina Panthers would eventually move the team’s practice facility and operations out of Charlotte and south of the border to Rock Hill was really just a matter of when the South Carolina Legislature would greenlight a set of tax breaks (worth somewhere between $115 and $120 million, by most estimates) that would allow the team to set up shop in York County. And when Panthers would officially say they were coming.
On June 5, the Panthers, the state, and City of Rock Hill made the official announcement that the team will be moving in over the next couple years.
The move will likely be to a 200-acre parcel where I-77 and Cherry Road come together. This much-expected parcel is technically an unincorporated area that the city would have to annex. That doesn’t worry Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys, who said the day following the pep rally that the city’s River Walk development started out on unincorporated land too, and a deal was easily hammered out.
But it’s just a guess that this particular tract is the one the Panthers will buy. Nothing is official yet, though in May, Gettys told the Rock Hill Herald that while he could not confirm anything, “where you believe it to be is probably the property.”
At the formal announcement – an event at Fountain Park dubbed the “Panther Pep Rally” – Gettys called the effort York County’s biggest economic development project to date. He compared the project to Disney World, in fact, saying that the effect Disney World had on Orlando and the state is the kind of impact potential the Panthers could have on Rock Hill.
What the Panthers Could Mean for the City and the State
The NFL offers two examples for what might be, when the Panthers get to town – The Star, a 91-acre sports and entertainment “district” in Frisco, Texas, and the prototype for all subsequent NFL practice/operations sites, including the first to follow it – Viking Lakes, a 200-acre mixed-use site in Eagan, Minnesota. The Star is where the Dallas Cowboys practice and run front office operations; Viking Lakes is the same kind of setup for the Minnesota Vikings.
Both centers were greeted with local skepticism and fear at first; and both have spurred economic growth well beyond what was anticipated in each of those cities.
According to an analysis by the Charlotte Business Journal, the Star triggered a corporate building boom in Frisco, including a 300-room hotel, a 17-story luxury residential tower set to open next year, and a $200 million office building for Keurig Dr Pepper that broke ground in May – the last being the city’s first Fortune 500 company to break ground there. All of this helped raised Frisco’s overall commercial valuation to $7.6 billion, up more than 71 percent since 2014’s groundbreaking for the Star.
In Eagan, Viking Lakes contributed well over a quarter of the city’s building valuation total of $428 million in 2017, when it launched, according to the Journal.
“The Vikings held their first training camp there in 2018 and generated $4.9 million of economic activity from late-July through mid-August,” the Journal reported.
In an interview with South Carolina Public Radio, Collin Huguley, the author of the analysis, said it’s no exaggeration to think the future could be as bright for Rock Hill as it’s been in Minnesota and Texas.
“It’s hard to compare the Panthers brand to the Cowboys brand because the Cowboys are such a national, even global brand,” he said. “But businesses just wanted to attach themselves to that brand and it kind of raised the ceiling for economic development in [Frisco].”
Huguley said that having an NFL franchise in Rock Hill likely “accelerates a timeline for development in the city and just makes things possible that wouldn’t be possible anytime soon, or maybe ever, developmentwise.”
The key element, he said, is a good working relationship between the city and the team.
“The way the Eagan mayor (Mike Maguire) put it,” he said, “was, ‘Let them do what they’re good at, as a football franchise and a business, and you help them with taking into account some of those infrastructure things, such as parking and traffic.’”
Gettys has said for weeks that the relationship between Rock Hill and the Panthers is and will remain strong. The city and the team will in tandem have to figure out from here the specifics of the land deal, which could come this fall. Groundbreaking, wherever it breaks, could come as early as next spring.