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Panthers jobs, players as neighbors. Gambling? How an NFL team move may reshape Rock Hill

Imagine running into Carolina Panthers players at a Tuesday night HOA meeting. Or sending your kids to school where they’ll learn how to get a foot in the door for an office job with the team.

Imagine someday, perhaps, betting on the Panthers without leaving Rock Hill.

Rock Hill and team officials say the pending headquarters and practice site move from Charlotte to Rock Hill will change the landscape south of the state line. Some of the ways it’ll happen are starting to take shape.

For one, Rock Hill along with Fort Mill and other parts of York County should expect to see Panthers players, coaches and staff members more often. Mark Hart, team COO, told a congregation of Rock Hill economic leaders and investors Oct. 25 he’s planning a move to Rock Hill.

“A lot of players and coaches like to live as close to work as possible,” Hart said.

He said he expects Rock Hill, but also Fort Mill and other places, could see an inflow. There have been players and team executives living in South Carolina for some time, but a headquarters move should bring more.

“When we all move down here, you’re going to see a great number of those players move and live in this community because they want to be able to go to work in five minutes,” Hart said. “It’s just the way life is.”

Hart worked for another NFL team prior to the Panthers. He said he recalls a practice site move for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the movement of players and staff that followed.

“Over time, you start to see players migrating, living literally within biking distance of that facility,” Hart said.

A practice site proposal will come up for discussion with Rock Hill’s planning commission on Tuesday night. Included are some proposed residential units, though Hart said at the recent meeting he doesn’t expect single-family homes to be a major piece of the puzzle.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a big element here,” he said. “If there’s housing here, I think it’s going to be some product of multi-famiily, sort of high-density, some kind of product that is different in the market. Something that is maybe reflective of kind of corporate employers that live here, the work-live-play sort of product.”

The proposal puts several limits on developing the property. Caps would come at 1,225 apartments and 230 hotel rooms, though the hotel rooms could increase by 180 rooms if apartments decreased by the same number. The project could have up to 10 homes and 250 townhomes.

Other caps come at 2.37 million square feet of office space and 652,500 square feet of research and development, retail, restaurant and personal service space. There could be up to 70,000 square feet of self-storage, in vertical mixed-use buildings only.

Gambling

One topic Hart didn’t mention to the development group, but has city planners talking, is gambling.

It’s one of several requested or possible elements to the Panthers development proposal listed in the application to the city. Sports gaming, betting venues or casinos aren’t legal in South Carolina. The city staff recommendation notes the team or developers could apply to amend the master plan if the law changes.

Often with development agreement proposals, property owners will ask for a variety of possible uses. Gambling fits into that category with the Panthers site.

“Just part of a list,” said Bill Meyer, the city planning director.

Similar ongoing discussions between city planners and the Panthers development group involves cigar bar establishments (prohibited now by the city smoking ordinance), wind power (current ordinances don’t address it) and bars staying open past 2 a.m. (state law calls for closing by 2 a.m.).

For city leaders, the question involves what to do if laws change.

There have been efforts in South Carolina and other states in recent years to legalize sports betting. Meyer said his department would want the city to have a say on gambling if it were to become legal.

“We are not recommending that uses not currently allowed by state law be permitted automatically if the law is changed,” Meyer said. “We feel that the city council needs the ability to evaluate any such changes in the context of both the project and the city as a whole.”

Working on details

Hart said at the recent meeting there are ongoing conversations with city planners, focused on zoning changes and related items ahead of a planned February closing on the more than 200-acre site along I-77. Clearing would begin in March and construction in April. The site would open in mid-2022.

“We’re working on nuts and bolts of the development, site infrastructure work,” he said. “We’re moving from conceptual design to schematic design.”

So much work on such a tight timeline means many of the community partnerships likely to occur, have only been conversations so far.

“We’ve talked about partnerships with Winthrop,” Hart said. “We’re talking about partnerships most certainly with other amenities. Waterford (Golf Club), we’ve met with the golfers in and around the site. We’ve met with the school board.”

Bringing an NFL team could lead to educational and job opportunities for area students, he said.

“How do we create curriculum opportunities, employment opportunities for even high school students to get into this business?” Hart said. “Whether it’s the actual Panthers business itself or whether it’s the spin off businesses, whether its healthcare or its education, whether it’s restaurant, hospitality things that are going to spur from this. We’ve got to start doing more digging about how to make these structured partnerships.”

Also to be determined, but expected, is the change Rock Hill will experience as an entertainment destination. The practice site could host anything from concerts to all-star football games or soccer and lacrosse tournaments.

“We view this as a community asset,” Hart said.

The site will have various ways, and means, of bringing people together.

“We’ve designed it so there are multiple ways to have the stage, multiple ways of hosting teams, multiple ways of expanding capacity from 5,000 to 10,000 so we can scale up and scale down,” Hart said.

Another area Hart believes the team can have an impact — traffic.

“Traffic is already tough around here sometimes — Dave Lyle, Cherry Road, some of these little arm connections, Mt. Gallant,” he said.

The team identified 12 intersection improvements in and around the project that would benefit the area, along with major road work to add an exit off I-77 in front of the property.

“If you’re from Rock Hill, if you care about traffic, if you care about things done right, you should be comfortable that we’ve identified areas that we’re going to fix or improve or make things work so that this is good for all of us,” Hart said.

Even with a development plan submitted, plans continue to take clearer shape. There are more than 75 people in seven parts of the country working on it, Hart said. David Vehaun, city manager in Rock Hill, saw new design plans the same day Hart spoke in Rock Hill.

“Unbelievable,” Vehaun said.

Hart said city, county and state officials have been working hard and together to make the project happen. Even with some concerns about gambling and bar hours, city planning staff recommends in favor of the project as details are addressed. The planning commission will make a recommendation for city council, which will decide whether to annex the property and zone it for the intended uses.

“Everybody’s been, I think, all in on this project,” Hart said. “I think everyone’s all together, and if we maintain working together I think we’re going to get this project done on time.”

Hart said he believes the end result will be a project all those stakeholders can appreciate.

“We wanted to make sure that it not only just serves our development but it serves the City of Rock Hill and York County, and really connects all parts of the community to this great, transformational project,” he said.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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