Subsidies for Carolina Panthers: A losing game for S.C. taxpayers?

May 15, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

At the end of the 2014 regular legislative session, lawmakers slipped in a budget proviso funneling $75,000 through the state tourism agency for the Carolina Panthers’ summer training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg.

Then-Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the proviso, writing in her June 11, 2014, veto message, “The National Football League is an enormously successful multi-billion dollar organization and we’re proud to host the Panthers’ training camp in Spartanburg, but it’s hard to imagine they need $75,000 from South Carolina’s taxpayers.”

Contrast that position to what current Gov. Henry McMaster wrote last month to Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, who is chairman of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, about the Panthers’ offer to locate its headquarters and practice field in York County – in exchange for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer-backed incentives.

The total public cost of the project is estimated at $107.7 million over 15 years, including a new $40 million interchange off Interstate 77 near Rock Hill, according to a state commerce analysis cited in the governor’s letter. The Charlotte-based Panthers franchise is owned by billionaire businessman David Tepper, who visited with McMaster at the governor’s mansion in March.

“This is a great deal,” McMaster, a Republican, said in his April 8 letter supporting a bill that would allow the Panthers to take advantage of state job tax credits. “It will create economic growth and prosperity for our citizens. It will bolster South Carolina’s prestige and ‘brand’ around the world.”

When lawmakers return next week to Columbia for a special session, they could decide on a compromise version of a similar incentives bill for the Panthers, which has racked up 14 losing regular seasons, including last year, in its 24-year history and has an overall losing record.

In its cost-benefit analysis included with McMaster’s letter last month, the S.C. Department of Commerce projected that the 150 jobs the Panthers would bring across the N.C. border to York County would support another 5,715 “indirect” jobs, resulting in an estimated “overall net impact” to the state of nearly $3.8 billion over 15 years.

S.C. Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, took issue with Commerce’s projections, hiring a former Commerce economist who estimated the move would create 208 jobs instead of the 5,715 positions cited by her ex-employer, according to a story in The State newspaper.

It’s not the first economic analysis of the Panthers’ presence in the Palmetto State.

Allen Smith, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a 2015 Wofford article that the Panthers’ 2014 summer camp at the college drew 49,000 visitors and resulted in a “$5.2 million economic impact.”

But whether the summer camps, which last year included a total of 15 days of scheduled activities from July 26 to Aug. 13, have substantially benefited Spartanburg is questionable. The Nerve this week surveyed downtown businesses for their opinions; while all those who responded said they saw increased customer traffic with the camps, none indicated that the events made a big impact on their bottom lines.

“We had a good crowd, but it wasn’t crazy,” said one restaurant manager about last year’s camp, adding that the customer traffic wasn’t near as heavy as during the Christmas season.

Last year, the summer camp drew nearly 66,000 visitors, Wofford spokeswoman Annie Mitchell said in an email this week to The Nerve, noting that the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau “handles the counts.”

Last year’s attendance easily outpaced the annual visitors from 2007 through 2014, though the number of visitors has dropped by nearly half since the 2016 camp – the same year the Panthers lost the Super Bowl according to information on the Spartanburg tourism organization’s website.

The Panthers made one other unsuccessful Super Bowl bid since the franchise’s first season in 1995. The team has a total of 193 losses, 190 wins and one tie in its 24 regular seasons, and has a 9-8 record in post-season play.

The summer practice camps have been held at Wofford, a private liberal arts college, since the team’s beginning; the Panthers’ agreement with Wofford runs through this year, Mitchell said.

“Hosting the Panthers at Wofford College for over two decades has been an incredible opportunity for Wofford and the Upstate, and we owe this opportunity to Mr. Richardson,” Mitchell said, referring to Wofford alumnus and former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

Richardson is “one of our most generous donors,” Mitchell said, though she declined to provide specifics. In 2014, Richardson pledged funding for the construction of a new basketball arena and arts center – projects that totaled more than $67 million, according to online articles.

Last June, the NFL announced it would fine Richardson $2.75 million after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and racist behavior by Richardson, according to media reports. The action came a month after NFL owners approved the sale of the Panthers to Tepper for $2.275 billion.

Transparency has been lacking among S.C. lawmakers in their dealings with the Panthers.

In trying to funnel $75,000 in tax dollars to the 2014 summer camp, the House quietly amended the state budget – long after both chambers passed their initial budget versions – on the House floor the day before the regular legislative session ended, records show. After then-Gov. Haley, a Republican, vetoed the $75,000, the House voted to “continue” the veto, effectively sustaining it that year.

Last week, during the last days of regular session, the Senate amended a House bill benefiting the Panthers – without taking a required roll-call vote on second reading, as pointed out by the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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