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Panthers move to terminate old agreements with Rock Hill; city, county 'optimistic'

Paul Brennan

Three years ago, to the day, Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys referred to the coming of the Carolina Panthers as “a huge boon” to the city.

On Tuesday, the Charlotte Observer reported that team had told the city that it would be terminating existing agreements regarding the construction of a near-billion-dollar sports complex where I-77 meets River Park.

That does not mean the team is pulling up stakes and leaving. Yet. But what this latest move actually will come to mean is anyone's guess.

The statement from GT Real Estate Holdings is the first communique from inside the team in more than a month. GTRE represents Tepper Sports & Entertainment and counts team owner David Tepper as one of two officers.

Tepper halted work on the site in early March and has left everyone – including officials from the city, state, and York County – wondering what his next move would be and why he had stopped the work.

The official reason given by the Panthers as to why work was paused on the planned practice facility and headquarters was that Rock Hill had failed to live up to financial obligations – specifically, that the city had not made good on $225 million in bonds aimed at helping to pay for infrastructure improvements.

The city has maintained that it had lived up to its end of agreements, but the stoppage generated speculation that the city could not afford such a bond and would, therefore, need help from York County, with its better Moody's bond rating. In late March, the county proposed a plan that would involve tax breaks for the Panthers in exchange for the team fronting infrastructure construction costs.

The Panthers did not public address the county's plan.

On Tuesday, the city responded to news that the team would be terminating its previous agreements with Rock Hill in a long statement. Read the statement in full at the bottom of this story.

The gist of the city's statement – as is that of the county, issued in a separate statement – is a hopeful one. In addition to the Panthers terminating old agreements, the team also told the Observer that it is willing to draw up new agreements.

In their statement, city officials expressed disappointment that the situation with the team has gotten to where it is, but also that they welcome the opportunity to iron out the issue. The county also issued a statement saying much the same – that York County “remains optimistic that this project can still move forward.”

City' s Full Statement:

The City of Rock Hill joined state and county leaders and the greater community in welcoming the Panthers to Rock Hill and shared in the excitement over Mr. Tepper’s idea of “two states, one team.”

Over the past three years, City staff and local elected officials have invested countless hours negotiating agreements and working to perform the City’s part of the agreements to make this a successful development for both the Panthers and the Rock Hill community.

We are disappointed with the current dispute and with the decision of the Panthers to halt the Rock Hill development, thus undermining the exhaustive efforts of the City of Rock Hill, State of South Carolina, York County, Rock Hill Schools, key landowners, and the entire region. It was and remains our intention to continue negotiating in good faith while protecting the interests of our taxpayers. In fact, in the past few weeks we have attempted to meet with the Panthers on numerous occasions to no avail.

The City met all obligations required under the agreements. The City did not commit to provide unlimited City backstop, but instead agreed to use its best reasonable efforts to issue bonds to be repaid by the increase in the tax revenues generated from development of the site which protects the City’s taxpayers and the City’s favorable financial position. As set forth in the parties’ finance agreement, the City was not required to pledge, use or contribute any City funds, revenues or assets to the repayment of the Bonds beyond the Panthers Fund Proceeds, Reserve Funds derived from proceeds of the Bonds, together with capitalized interest, if any, or [municipal improvement district (MID)] assessments imposed in accordance with the MID Governing Documents; and … the City’s reasonable best efforts to issue Bonds shall not be construed as an assurance or guarantee by the City that there will be a buyer for any of the Bonds.

As Mayor John Gettys has said, “Our community embraced the Panthers and welcomed them to South Carolina. Be assured the City of Rock Hill did everything to make this project a success and has not defaulted on any of our obligations … that is not how we do business.”

The City does not believe in addressing, through a public back-and-forth, its differences with another party. We are encouraged the Panthers may now be willing to meet and look forward to resolving any and all outstanding issues so that we can together fulfill the promises implicit in the “two states, one team” ethos. From our standpoint, we are prepared to meet as early as today. Accordingly, this will be the last public statement from the City regarding the most recent misleading and erroneous statements from the Panthers.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.