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What if the Panthers really aren't coming to Rock Hill? A (mostly optimistic) conversation with U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman

The glimmering, $1B project to bring the Carolina Panthers to Rock Hill might be dead. Or not. It's not official, but it doesn't look good.
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The glimmering, $1B project to bring the Carolina Panthers to Rock Hill might be dead. Or not. It's not official, but it doesn't look good.

The Carolina Panthers/Rock Hill deal to develop a nearly $1 billion practice facility and entertainment venue is not officially dead, even if it looks that way. On April 19, the team terminated agreements with the city, and the team, city, and York County all left the door ajar to rekindle negotiations to bring the project to fruition.

But a growing chorus of residents are not optimistic that the project will get to the end. On the other hand, the site – 250 acres, 60 of which has already seen much work done on it in preparation for the officially-on-hiatus project – is prime commercial land, according to U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-5th), a career commercial developer before his life in politics.

I sat down with Norman Friday to get a perspective from someone who has no official stake in the Panthers project, but could offer some insight into what it might mean for Rock Hill (and the county and state) if the project really is dead here.

On what could happen at the site:

Let me give you the positive aspect first. You’ve got a 250-acre property on I-77, with an interchange going in. So traffic can come in and out when and if the property is developed. Secondly, the 60 acres that Mr. Tepper cleared and took the rock out of, while it’s got footings in and a building there – if [the project] doesn't happen, that will come down and you will have a 60 acre track that is easily developable. It's something that can be for whatever final use that comes there. And you've got the surrounding property that would be yet to be developed.

Now, if [Tepper] doesn’t come, then you lose a main centerpiece of a development that's going to attract thousands of thousands of people. It's a multi-use building and it attracts hotels. It attracts, restaurants, a host of commercial pay in businesses, which pay the bills for any municipality and ultimately for the state. So , if he doesn't come, it’s going to take some time to fill in the void, but I do think it will be filled in.

On whether the project is dead or not:

It's rare to see a project like this stopped in midstream when he was ready to put the roof on. I've been to the site, I've seen it. He had walls built. The interchange is visible. So, hopefully it will come about, but if it doesn't something else will come and it will be a good thing.

The interchange meant to send traffic to the Panthers’ facility is going ahead regardless:

In today's world, you've got to have a way for a shopper to get to a mall, for a shopper to come to a stadium. Every elected official in the state now realizes you got to, the planning has got to be performed upfront and you gotta have a way where people aren’t sitting in a parking lot on the interstate. And I think there's interchange gives it a free flow of activity, for not just a 250-acre tract, but all the way to Riverview Road and the vacant land that's behind the [Galleria] mall – the vacant land that's behind there and all the industries that are already. So that's a, that's a good thing.

On the value of the tract to the city:

They got a jewel of a piece of property. It's not landlocked. I mean, 250 acres is a lot of land to use. You can put a lot of commercial, entities there that pay a tremendous tax that supports our law enforcement, our schools, our first responders. It may take longer to develop because a stadium on a going franchise 20 minutes up the road in Charlotte would have been good to have, but I think eventually something will be there and it just be a matter of what.

On why work at the site stopped:

The fact that the project has stopped tells you something. You don't stop a project like that without affecting all the people that made it, brought it to the point that it is now in the development world. You signed contracts with probably in this case, over 300 different vendors from architects to landscape designers to roadway designs to water and sewer designers.

It's rare to see a project go this far where you about to put a roof on a facility and spent the millions that he has, and then just pull the plug on it. This has been a four year project. So either something has changed in his organization where the numbers don't add up or he's using it for leverage to see what he can get from Charlotte, or he's just pulling out altogether and concentrating on a different avenue to go.

Ultimately, whether the Panthers come to Rock Hill or not:

It's a good thing. The basics that made it a success to get to this far are still there. If it ends up not going, and if I had to bet, I would say [it’s] probably not, all is not lost. When you put infrastructure in to get a project ready to go, that's a good thing. When you have a piece of property that's got an interstate, that has water and sewer and utilities – they're all the things that made it feasible for Mr. Tepper to do what he did is still there. It's just a different use.

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.