When Nick Peñaloza found out the Carolina Panthers were building a new headquarters in Rock Hill, he and his wife Cailtlin decided to open a local cafe less than a mile away.
They opened Forte Legato Coffee in February 2020, and since then business has been quite slow, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But they believed the new jobs the Panthers would bring would also bring additional coffee-seeking customers to their business.
However, last month, Tepper Sports & Entertainment halted construction on the 240-acre property due to a disagreement between the city and the company. Owner David Tepper’s shutdown and silence has some wondering if the Panthers will move their headquarters elsewhere.
And what once seemed like a great business opportunity for Nick and Caitlin, now has them trying to find another way to grow their customer base.
“Last month was just weird, because I think from a business perspective and from a taxpayer perspective, we don’t know who is really doing what or not doing what,” Peñaloza said.
Tepper Sports & Entertainment argues that the City of Rock Hill was “unable to contribute the agreed investment to fund the construction” of the project. The city said yes.
The Rock Hill Herald reported that City Manager David Vehaun told a March City Council meeting that the Panthers had slowed down Rock Hill’s ability to issue the $225 million in bonds. Vehaun said that before Rock Hill could issue the bonds, the city needed specific details from the Panthers, such as development and financial plans, to provide to potential investors, and the Panthers were not submitting enough details, said reported the Herald.
City, county and TS&E representatives met to discuss how they could make things work. All three parties talked about an alternative payment.
But since that meeting, Tepper has remained silent. And some politicians and locals fear he will pack up his things and leave. Worst-case scenario, Tepper sues the city and county.
“At this point he died in the water,” York County Councilman Bump Roddey said. “To say nothing is actually to say a lot of things.”
York County Councilman Brandon Guffey said, “Being at the county level, I don’t know if the city is right or the Panthers are right. What I do know is that we don’t want to be caught up in a legal battle, trying to figure this out for the next 15 years, or however long that takes.
Tepper did not say if he would accept a deal. If he doesn’t, the current deal stands and the city of Rock Hill must provide the $225 million in bonds it was supposed to issue.
‘Yes for an answer’
Another issue to address is that the longer the issue remains unresolved, the less likely it is that the facility will actually be built.
South Carolina offered about $115 million in incentives for the Panthers to move their headquarters there from their home at Bank of America Stadium.
However, this agreement comes with a deadline. If the facility isn’t built by the end of 2024, the state won’t offer the Panthers any money, giving them little incentive to build there.
Under the county’s resolution, the Panthers would receive incentives for four decades in exchange for completing $225 million in public infrastructure at the site.
South Carolina State Sen. Wes Climer said Tepper should speak, especially after it emerged that all three parties were happy with the alternate deal. TS&E did not agree to the deal.
“It’s the most disconcerting thing,” Climer said. “So far he has shown no willingness to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
Efforts to reach Rock Hill Mayor David Gettys for comment were unsuccessful.
The facility was to be completed by 2022, then pushed back to 2023. The goal was for the Panthers to hold a training camp at the facility in the summer of 2023.
But there have been several issues with the site, including a slowdown in construction due to COVID-19 and an unexpected number of rocks on site.
The Panthers purchased the more than 240 acres off Interstate 77 from the Hutchinson family for more than $16 million in March 2020 to build their new home. Tepper also owns the nearby Waterford Golf Club, which is 205 acres.
The Panthers broke new ground that year. Tepper, the owner of the Panthers and Charlotte FC, spoke to a crowd at Rock Hill and proclaimed big things were to come.
“They’re going to know Rock Hill longer than Football City, USA,” he said at the time, standing next to South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.
The nearly 700,000 square foot training facility is meant to include an indoor training ground and is expected to help promote growth in the surrounding area, while improving the team environment. It will be one of the largest facilities in the NFL, if not the largest, and will rival the Dallas Cowboys headquarters in Frisco, Texas.
The Observer visited the facility, dubbed “The Rock”, in August 2021. At the time, 340 workers were on hand to help build the facility. It was expected that 800 people would be there at the same time.
But on a visit last week, the only thing at the site was a half-built structure and piles of dirt. Security guards guarded the two entrances to the site.
The site’s general contractor, Barton Malow, declined to comment and referred questions to the Panthers, who also declined to comment.
The headquarters is also meant to be a sports and entertainment venue with the potential to host a variety of events, including football games, high school sports championships, corporate events, and concerts.
McMaster told reporters in Greenville, SC earlier this week that he spoke to Tepper about the situation, who explained to him why they suspended construction and the issues he was having with the town of Rock Hill. But he said he hoped everything would work out.
“We’re ready to go,” McMaster said. “The state has done its part and we want to encourage everyone to resolve the differences, and let’s go.”
But it’s not clear that will happen even now.
It is possible that the facility will not be built in Rock Hill.
For local businesses like Forte Legato, that means changing their plans.
“If the Panthers don’t come, okay, we’ll find something,” Peñaloza said. “Maybe find a new location that will bring us better business or maybe they will come. But that just means we wait and try to find out what the real impacts are for small businesses?
“Because I don’t think it’s clear.”