Taxpayer-funded gifts to Panthers grow with planned SC move

July 29, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

If only the Carolina Panthers could win as easily as it gets taxpayer money.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT) was awarded a nearly $34.6 million “Infrastructure for Rebuilding America” (INFRA) federal grant to build a new interchange on Interstate 77 near the Rock Hill site of the Panthers’ proposed headquarters and training facility.

The grant is $10.6 million more than a federal grant that the SCDOT sought last year but didn’t receive. The total estimated cost of the interchange project also has skyrocketed, jumping to $88.5 million from $50 million in last year’s grant application, which at that time was $10 million more than initial estimates, according to SCDOT documents provided to The Nerve under the state’s open-records law.

Records show that the SCDOT in February applied for a $39.5 million INFRA grant, which would require the state Department of Commerce to kick in a $40 million match – $15 million more than the state’s promised share in last year’s unsuccessful grant application.

Commerce is flush with money: As of Tuesday, the agency had total general and “other” fund reserves of $123.2 million, according to the state Comptroller General’s Office.

Under the INFRA grant application, the city of Rock Hill would contribute $1 million to the interchange project, while the Charlotte-based Panthers would give $8 million – less than 10% of the total estimated cost. The NFL team is owned by billionaire David Tepper, who was ranked this year by Forbes.com as the world’s 101st richest person with a current net worth of $13 billion.

The new interchange is a key part of the Panthers’ planned move to South Carolina, which is being pushed by Gov. Henry McMaster. Last year, state lawmakers – with McMaster’ support – passed a bill extending job tax credits to the Panthers.

In April, the York County Council approved a $225 million incentives package that will cover infrastructure costs at the headquarters site through reduced property taxes, according to media reports.

The INFRA grant application noted the state already has spent about $350,000 on preliminary engineering for “rapid deployment” of the interchange project through a “design build” method. Under state law, that method doesn’t require the SCDOT to select the lowest bidder.

Project cost numbers aren’t the only official figures that have been massaged over the past year.

The grant application estimates the Panthers’ planned move will create 1,794 jobs over approximately 9.5 years, the vast majority of those positions generated with the development of 1.4 million square feet of commercial space at the 234-acre site.

But The Nerve revealed in December that an estimated 7,000 new jobs – about 5,600 more than the latest projection – would be created with the additional commercial space, according to a cost-benefit analysis included with last year’s unsuccessful $24 million federal grant application.

In an economic impact analysis that was included with the latest grant application, the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business said that according to information provided by the Panthers, the team would move 150 employees, including players, coaches and management staff, to Rock Hill. The study noted that 60 players are expected to “reside in South Carolina for a minimum of six months each year.”

The latest grant application contends the Panthers along with two other unrelated companies – LPL Financial, which provides services to financial professionals, and the Lash Group, a patient-support services business – are “creating over 12,000 new jobs in the Rock Hill and Fort Mill area,” though a specific breakdown wasn’t provided.

In an email response Tuesday, LPL Financial spokeswoman Rachel White said the company had 2,151 employees in Fort Mill as of Dec. 31, when the firm’s annual report was published. The Lash Group didn’t respond Tuesday to a phone message seeking comment; the company brought 1,200 employees to its new Fort Mill headquarters in 2016, with plans to double its workforce by this year, according to media reports then.

Assuming the Lash Group’s current employment is 2,400, that number combined with LPL Financial’s most-recent staff total and the projected 1,794 jobs with the Panthers’ planned move would equal slightly more than half of the 12,000-worker figure cited in the grant application.

As for the Panthers’ on-the-field history, the team has logged a total of 195 wins and 204 losses during the regular seasons since it started playing in 1995. It ended last year at the bottom of its division with a 5-11 record.

How many games will be played this upcoming season is uncertain with the COVID-19 pandemic. The NFL on Monday said there will be no preseason games this year.

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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