Betty Jo Rhea doesn’t tell the story often, but she figures now is as good a time as any.
The former Rock Hill mayor met with Jerry Richardson back before the Carolina Panthers were an actual NFL team. A prominent Rock Hill resident at the time and college friend with Richardson brokered the meeting in the 1980s about the possibility of putting a stadium for the team on riverfront property in South Carolina.
Rhea said she met with Richardson and others at her office in the old city hall.
“It was just real positive,” Rhea said of her meeting with Richardson, now the Panthers’ former owner. “So we were thinking about getting the Panthers way back when. We were trying then.”
When Richardson eventually landed the Panthers in 1993, his group built the stadium and headquarters in Charlotte.
Rock Hill wasn’t ready for the team. On Wednesday, the city was.
Current team owner David Tepper spoke at a downtown pep rally, alongside national, state and city leaders. He confirmed his plan to bring a world-class practice facility and related development to Rock Hill.
Here’s how Rock Hill got this far, as told by the people who steered the city:
A park with a purpose
Local and state leaders Wednesday talked about the Panthers facility as an unprecedented move for economic growth and branding. But it’s another site city leaders point to in explaining how it happened.
“It’s really wonderful,” said Rhea, Rock Hill mayor from 1986 to 1998. “It really and truly is. Really the thing that sort of kicked it off was Cherry Park. It was controversial and I still have whiplash.”
Cherry Park opened in 1985. The 68-acre softball complex deviated from the smaller, single-field parks common at the time. Not everyone liked the idea. At least a couple of city council members lost re-election bids, including Doug Echols, who would return to the council when the park proved fruitful. Echols would go on to succeed Rhea as mayor.
“People that lived out there just thought it would make too much noise,” said Rhea, a council member when Cherry Park began. “Somebody said they’d rather have a shopping center. They didn’t realize how nice it was going to be.”
Echols, mayor from 1998 to 2018, agrees with Rhea.
“Certainly initially it took some convincing,” Echols said. “It took people seeing the benefits. Fortunately, we were able to create Cherry Park, which served as a model not only for rec softball but big tournaments. Through that venue what we were able to show is the great economic impact from having those tournaments come in.”
The tournaments and other events would become hallmarks of Rock Hill’s identity.
“That really launched our city into a position of sports tourism,” Echols said. “Certainly it’s about playing ball and having fun, but it’s also about economic impact.”
Rock Hill now routinely hosts regional, national and international events, from bike races to disc golf, softball to soccer. The city even hosts literary competitions — the Quidditch World Cup brought to Rock Hill a game popularized by the Harry Potter novels.
Reinventing Rock Hill
In the mid-’80s, there was an inkling sports tourism could be a calling card, but Rhea and her staff were looking for anything nice that would stick.
The city needed reinvention.
“All the mills had closed,” she said. “We had 17-point-something percent unemployment.”
The city also added industrial and tech parks. Leaders marketed the change they envisioned. Other former mill communities throughout the Charlotte region faced similar adversity.
“We started our business parks and made those really nice,” Rhea said. “It was interesting that it was less expensive to bring businesses here (from North Carolina). We played on that as well.”
Echols said it’s about more than building parks.
“That includes decisions that have been made not only around sports, but decisions to support our community with schools, infrastructure development and economic development opportunities,” he said. “All those things play a part.”
Even taxes matter.
Hospitality and accommodations taxes, respectively charged on food and overnight stays, help municipalities fund projects to promote tourism.
“One of the things that was done by the council was to implement the hospitality tax, which gave us a revenue flow to be able to do many of the kinds of sports venues we have,” Echols said.
While sports tourism has stuck as an identity, Rhea says visionary efforts by then-city manager Joe Lanford and others since the late ’80s helped Rock Hill on a variety of fronts, transforming it from a mill town.
“We just took advantage of everything that we could that was here,” Rhea said.
Cherry Park, like the industrial parks and commercial growth, set a tone for Rock Hill, following a mantra Rhea uses to describe Rock Hill.
“It was better than it had to be,” Rhea said. “And that’s always what we’ve wanted to do.”
John Gettys, who followed Echols as mayor, knows Rock Hill from pre-Cherry Park to the Panthers negotiating table.
“But for Cherry Park,” he said, “the Panthers would not be here.”
After softball tournaments began pouring in, it was easier pitching tennis courts and soccer fields. Residents didn’t mind funding facilities as much, including world-class ones to host the largest of events.
“It really started the ball rolling,” Rhea said of Cherry Park, “and when we started the soccer complex, I don’t remember anybody complaining about it. It was just sort of the thing to do.”
A tennis center opened in 2005. Manchester Meadows, another sports park, followed a year later. A velodrome opened in 2014 and a BMX site two years later. Later this year, the city will open an indoor sports arena set to add sports tourism in the colder months.
The sports sites also create a sense of identity.
Much of Rock Hill’s Football City, USA branding comes from the high number of local athletes who have grown into star high school, collegiate and NFL football players. A city identity is critical, Gettys said.
“What I think Rock Hill has done for so long is made its message about how do we make more opportunities for more of our people?” Gettys said. “How do we put ourselves in position that we can land these big kinds of deals and protect who we are for the future?”
Closing the deal
In fantasy football there’s a term -- vulture -- that few politicians would adopt for themselves.
It’s the player who comes into games when his team marches into scoring position. That player then finishes the drive by carrying the ball the last few yards across the goal line.
Gettys is no touchdown vulture, but within 18 months of his swearing-in and six months after he first met with Panthers officials, a downtown pep rally celebrated the team’s plans.
“I have enjoyed playing my part in the whole process,” Gettys said, sharing if not deflecting credit. “Yes I’m the new mayor, and yes it’s been a lot of fun. But the credit really goes to our city council that have been at this for a long time and our city management team, David Vehaun. They know how to get things done.”
Gettys did offer his own story in front of a thousand or more people Wednesday.
As lawyer and mayor, Gettys showed up with bullet points. He read the room. He had a case to make. He figured he’d have to sell team officials on sports, civic and business successes.
Then the fun began.
“To see the Panthers basically wave me off and say ‘Mayor, we’re not sitting in a room with another community. We’re sitting in this room with you. And there’s a reason why we’re in this room with you,’’” Gettys said.
Gettys calls it the most fun part of the process so far, seeing a generation of work by city leaders come to a crescendo.
“The benefits that we’re seeing today are because of the hard work of previous mayors in making sure that our parks were the basis for our community, our business parks and our recreation parks,” Gettys said. “But also previous city councils as well that have worked on some of this stuff that we’re now seeing come to fruition.”
More to come
Hydrangea takes months to grow, or years to reach full bloom, their vibrant color determined by the soil. So the blossoming Panthers blue filling Fountain Park for Wednesday’s pep rally was a testament to time and the city’s environment.
“I don’t think that we thought originally, at least I didn’t, relative to the Panthers themselves (coming to Rock Hill),” Echols said. “But Rock Hill has already been involved in major events.”
The bike races, soccer, softball — even the quidditch — showed a region that Rock Hill can put on a show.
“They are major, significant events in the life of our sports tourism journey,” Echols said. “It’s been building. One thing leads to another.”
And it won’t stop.
“A lot of big events like we had today are built around decisions that were made a long time ago,” Echols said Wednesday. “Those turnout to be building blocks for the kind of opportunities, which having the Panthers come, presents us.
“Of course, more is going to come.”
An indoor sports site is predicted to greatly change an area near downtown Rock Hill that once was home to one of the city’s largest employers -- a mill that isn’t a mill anymore. Restaurants and businesses are replacing it at a place that now is called Knowledge Park. There are parking decks to manage all the people and hotels planned to give them somewhere to stay.
“You really will see an influx of thousands of people virtually every weekend,” Echols said.
Gettys said for all the Panthers talk, there are quiet discussions among city leaders for other additions to take the city to new economic and development heights.
“This is how we make sure we hold on to our identity as a community,” Gettys said. “We’re not going to be swallowed up by others. We will always be Rock Hill.”
How it happened
A brief timeline of key moments leading to the Carolina Panthers coming to Rock Hill:
▪ Cherry Park opens in Rock Hill. The first major sports tourism destination in the city focused on softball, on land donated to the city along Cherry Road.
▪ The Carolina Panthers are born, becoming the 29th NFL franchise. The team will be based in Charlotte but its logo and name depict the Carolinas as a two-state region.
▪ The Panthers begin play. The team hosts games during its first season at Clemson University as construction to build a stadium in Charlotte continues. The first training camp is held at Winthrop University.
▪ The Panthers begin play in their current stadium, now named Bank of America Stadium, in Charlotte.
▪ The Rock Hill Tennis Center opens as a partnership between the city and Rock Hill school district. It has 10 courts and a championship court with stadium seating.
▪ The 70-acre Manchester Meadows opens with soccer fields, trails, a soccer pavilion, playgrounds and more. Manchester Meadows hosts regional and national soccer events.
▪ Former Herald sports writer Barry Byers refers to Rock Hill as Football City, USA as South Pointe and Northwestern high schools meet in a state title football game. The name gets out and several state and national publications use it in reference to Rock Hill.
▪ The Giordana Velodrome opens in in Rock Hill. The $5 million project includes a 250-meter banked track and stands for 800 spectators.
▪ The $1 million Rock Hill BMX Supercross Track opens in Rock Hill. It will host up to international level events.
▪ Fountain Park opens in Rock Hill’s Old Town. A joint venture between the city and Comporium, Fountain Park has a large fountain with green space and a performance area. On Wednesday, it had elected and team officials celebrating the Carolina Panthers move to Rock Hill.
▪ David Tepper buys the Panthers for more than $2 billion from its only prior majority owner, Jerry Richardson.
▪ Tepper meets with S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and other legislators in Columbia to discuss tax incentives related to a possible move to South Carolina.
▪ Rock Hill and the Panthers announce plans for a new practice facility and medical complex.
▪ The Rock Hill Sports & Event Center is planned to open. It will have basketball and volleyball courts, including seating for 1,200 people on the championship court.