Trick plays? How job estimates have grown with the Panthers’ planned SC move

December 6, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

The Carolina Panthers’ planned move of its headquarters and training facilities to Rock Hill is part of a larger effort to create 7,000 jobs with an average annual salary of $60,000 – as claimed in a state application for a federal grant to build an interstate interchange that would benefit the NFL team.

The projected jobs number, cited in the July grant application that was submitted by the S.C. Department of Transportation, is 1,135 higher than what the state Department of Commerce estimated earlier this year if the Charlotte-based Panthers moved across the state line. The Nerve recently obtained the grant application under the state Freedom of Information Act.

The “Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development” (BUILD) grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation didn’t give specifics on how the latest jobs estimate was calculated. Gov. Henry McMaster and Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt noted the 7,000 figure in separate July letters of support for the grant.

According to the application, the city of Rock Hill “provided an economic analysis” for the proposed $50 million I-77 interchange project – a key part of the Panthers’ planned move. But city spokeswoman Katie Quinn in a written response Thursday to The Nerve said Commerce “provided us with the estimate of number of jobs and salary range that was included in the application.”

Commerce spokeswoman Alex Clark in an email response Friday said the department “did not prepare the cost-benefit analysis that was submitted for the BUILD grant,” adding the application “took into account the potential full build out of the entire office park, not just the proposed Panthers project.”

The I-77 interchange would provide access to a “new multipurpose business development” in addition to the Panthers’ facilities, including office buildings and a health complex, according to the grant application. Clark said the 7,000 jobs estimate was determined based on the “total anticipated square footage of Class A office space using industry norms for personnel per square foot of space,” and that the projected average $60,000 annual salary is “consistent with other similar industry wages in the area.”

To obtain the requested $24 million federal grant, the state would have to provide a $25 million match, with the city of Rock Hill contributing $1 million toward the $50 million projected total cost of the interchange – $10 million more than earlier estimates.

As it turned out, however, the U.S. Department of Transportation didn’t approve the grant for this year, Quinn informed The Nerve Thursday afternoon, though the federal agency last month awarded the city of Charleston a BUILD grant of $18.1 million.

Asked if not receiving the $24 million grant would jeopardize the Panthers’ project in Rock Hill and who would pay for the proposed interchange going forward, Quinn replied, “At this time, we don’t have any indication how the shortfall will be covered,” referring The Nerve to Commerce and the state DOT.

Clark told The Nerve when asked the same questions that “there is no final agreement regarding this proposed project, and there is no final plan for financing the interchange.” In an earlier email response Thursday, state DOT spokesman Pete Poore said the department is “not funding this interchange,” referring The Nerve to Commerce.

The BUILD grant application noted the I-77 interchange project is “one of the few new transportation projects for which the Department of Commerce has committed financial support.” Although a BUILD grant was not awarded for the project, Clark said Commerce does not “anticipate that the interchange, if constructed, would be funded primarily or entirely with state grant funds.”

As The Nerve has previously reported, Commerce is flush with money: The agency’s total budget for this fiscal year, which started July 1, is $200.5 million, including a newly created $65 million “Rural School District and Economic Development Closing Fund,” which was pushed by McMaster. On top of that, as of June 30, Commerce had a collective $145.7 million in general and “other” fund reserves, records show.

Quinn said as part of the city’s effort to help obtain the $24 million federal grant, city officials were “working with the developer” – identified by her as “representatives of the Panthers” – to “determine how the ($1 million) match would be funded.”

City manager David Vehaun in a July letter of support with the grant application said the city was “committed to providing” the $1 million in “match funding over the project period to support the project,” though he didn’t mention any collaboration with the Panthers, owned by billionaire David Tepper.

The interchange project would create an estimated 7,000 “new office jobs in 1.2 million square feet of office space,” generating a total annual payroll of $423 million based on an average annual salary of $60,000, according to a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) included with the application records provided to The Nerve.

In comparison, a CBA produced by Commerce in April projected the creation of 150 “direct” jobs with the Panthers’ move, plus another 5,715 “indirect” jobs, resulting in a total estimated payroll of $3.66 billion over 15 years. The total estimated public cost over the period was listed at $107.7 million, including a $40 million interchange, $65.3 million in projected job-development credits, and $937,557 in estimated job-tax credits.

From mid-April to mid-July of this year, the estimated total number of jobs with the planned move to the Palmetto State grew by 1,135, or 19%, to 7,000. Clark contended the two CBAs are “not comparable, as they are based on different underlying assumptions.”

The Legislature in May passed – with McMaster’s support – a bill extending job tax credits to the Panthers. McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes did not respond to written questions Thursday from The Nerve about the federal grant application.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, disputed Commerce’s April CBA, releasing his own study by a former Commerce economist, who pegged the estimated total number of new additional jobs with the Panthers’ planned move at 208, based on the permanent relocation of 75 Panthers personnel.

Contacted Thursday by The Nerve, Harpootlian said he wasn’t aware of the federal grant application for the I-77 interchange or the 7,000 jobs estimate with the project.

“If they represented that to the federal government, maybe somebody needs to look at it from a more stringent standpoint,” he said.

Since the Panthers started playing in 1995, the team has a total of 195 wins and 200 losses during the regular season; its current win-loss record is 5-7. On Tuesday, the Panthers announced that head coach Ron Rivera, who took over the job in 2011, had been fired.

The Panthers’ organization did not immediately respond to written questions Friday from The Nerve about whether it still plans to move its headquarters and training facilities to Rock Hill given the denial of the federal grant.

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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