In front of a cheering throng of Carolina Panthers fans, sporting a hat so new it still had the tags on, John Gettys offered the understatement of his tenure thus far as Rock Hill’s mayor.
“Welcome to Rock Hill,” Gettys told Carolina Panthers’ owner David Tepper. “We’re glad to have you.”
City, state and team leaders confirmed Wednesday morning in as public a way as possible, the Panthers are bringing their new practice site to Rock Hill.
Fans filled an entire city block and then some at Fountain Park, many donning black and blue jerseys, helmets, panther paws.
Tepper, heading into his second season as team owner, told fans the Panthers will bring the same winning effort to a new practice site and related growth in Rock Hill that the team does in Charlotte where it plays home games.
“It’s a mantra of excellence, and a mantra of winning,” Tepper said. “And that’s what we want to do down here in Rock Hill.”
Tepper talked of adding a world-class orthopedic and executive medicine facility people would fly to Rock Hill from around the country to access.
“This is going to be a showcase down here,” he said. “We’re going to bring people down to this region. We’ll have just a sense of excellence not only up there for the football team, but everything we do down here in Rock Hill.”
Talk of a new practice facility stirred late last year with comments made in Rock Hill by team radio announcer Mick Mixon, as he addressed York County chamber of commerce leaders. Until Wednesday Tepper still hadn’t formally announced a decision about the move.
Still, Rock Hill emerged earlier this year as a potential landing spot for the Charlotte NFL franchise. South Carolina lawmakers pushed new legislation through to create $115 million worth of financial incentives aimed at luring the team.
Discussion between city, state and team leaders centers on a more than 200-acre property along I-77, between Cherry Road and Dave Lyle Boulevard exits. The site is not in city limits but could be annexed.
Gettys said serious conversations about a move to Rock Hill started six months ago. He came ready to talk amenities, many of them sports-related, already in Rock Hill. Team officials didn’t want to hear it. The city’s reputation as a sports hub in the region preceded the talks.
“We wouldn’t be talking to you if we didn’t know Rock Hill could pull this off,” Gettys recalls officials saying.
Gettys said he believes his city has landed something that could change Rock Hill and South Carolina the way Disneyworld did Orlando and Florida decades ago.
“Today we get to celebrate the biggest economic development project in Rock Hill and York County’s history,” Gettys said.
Rock Hill businessman and state Rep. Gary Simrill said his city is known as Football City, USA, for the talent it produces. Many Rock Hill players have gone on to collegiate and NFL success. Adding the Panthers, Simrill said, is an entirely different step.
“Now we have the crowning jewel of being Football City USA because the Panthers are coming here,” Simrill said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived.”
Political leaders weren’t the only ones excited.
Jaylin Anderson, 12, showed up in a Cam Newton jersey hoping to meet folks with the team and maybe shake the mayor’s hand.
“We’re here to celebrate the Carolina Panthers in the city,” he said.
What does it mean having an NFL team headquartered out of his home city?
“Super Bowls,” Anderson said.
Buddies Miles Robinson, Brady Nowicki and Shaw Catoe came out Wednesday in their jerseys and team gear.
“I thought it was cool,” said Nowicki, 10. “And really, it’s just to show that they signed their names so they can move to Rock Hill.”
The name on the dotted line belongs to Gov. Henry McMaster, who signed the Professional Sports Team Incentive Act of 2019 into law at the event. The $115 million incentive package was key to bringing Panthers practice facilities across the South Carolina line.
“Crazy,” Nowicki said of Rock Hill getting the team headquarters. “Charlotte is way popular.”
Before putting his name to the new law, McMaster spoke briefly of the various large corporations that located in South Carolina in recent years. Many of them are manufacturers. All, McMaster said, share a reason for locating here — the people of South Carolina.
“It’s the people of South Carolina that are going to make this the greatest team we’ve ever seen,” he said.
Jay Lucas, state speaker of the house, likened the pro sports incentive deal to similar efforts to bring major business to the state.
“We manufacture tires,” he said. “We manufacture cars. And now we manufacture football teams.”
Lucas sees significant economic gains coming not just for Rock Hill and York County, but statewide.
“We’ve always heard the mantra that Dave Tepper has told us since the Carolina Panthers have come here — two states, one great team,” Lucas said. “Well I can tell you, that has never been more true than it is today in South Carolina.”
Leaders spoke of the Panthers coming as a moment Rock Hill, York County and South Carolina won’t soon forget.
“Throughout the annals of history there are watershed moments,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman. “This is a watershed moment for Rock Hill. This is a watershed moment for South Carolina.”