City leaders discuss reviving Rock Hill's Cherry Road

adouglas@heraldonline.comApril 6, 2013 

— Business leaders and residents have spoken up about the need to revive Rock Hill’s Cherry Road, and city leaders say they’re listening. Many Cherry Road business owners say they want the same economic development attention that other areas of the city get, such as Rock Hill’s downtown and its business parks.

Development on Cherry Road is challenged by buildings dating back to the 1950’s and retail areas with more asphalt than needed but not enough landscaping. Also, there are a lot of commercial uses that don’t meet the city’s current zoning regulations.

Rock Hill planners have spent the last few months meeting with neighbors and businesses along Cherry Road between the newly-developed Riverwalk area on the Catawba River and Heckle Boulevard.

City staff members have divided the five-mile thoroughfare into seven sections for study. Rock Hill City Council members have already heard feedback from three of the seven areas.

Late last month, several council members said they’d support a Cherry Road “revitalization strategy.” Among the ideas being discussed are incentives for businesses to locate or expand and making changes to zoning regulations. No specific proposals have been developed yet.

With Dave Lyle Boulevard flourishing and Rock Hill developing a plan to revive downtown, some people feel as though development is moving away from Cherry Road, Councilwoman Kathy Pender said during a March meeting that focused on Cherry Road redevelopment.

The time staff members spent asking residents and businesses what they need and want, Pender said, is overdue and greatly appreciated.

Mayor Doug Echols suggested at the meeting that city officials could be proactive in the revitalization by offering incentives to businesses who invest in improving the look of their stores.

“It’s a slow process to wait for people to have that ‘a-ha’ moment themselves,’” he said.

Council members did not take a vote on Cherry Road plans during the meeting.

‘Keep it from a downward spiral’

Before development along Dave Lyle Boulevard, Celanese Road and in the downtown area, Cherry Road was Rock Hill’s shopping destination.

“I remember 25 years ago when Cherry was still the address,” said Will Whitley, partner with Charlotte-based New South Properties.

His company owns the North East Plaza Shopping Center at the corner of Anderson Road and Cherry Road, where stores like Verizon Wireless, Luigi’s Pizza and Spaghetti House and others have set up shop.

About six years ago, the company bought the 18 acre shopping center--once the home of Bi-Lo before it moved across the street.Since 2007, New South Properties has invested about $10 million into the center, Whitley said, giving it a new roof, parking lot, landscaping and a fresh paint job.

The company has paid for all of it without incentives, he said.

The city of Rock Hill’s business permit process and other development services have been easy to navigate, Whitley said, but renewed attention along Cherry Road and some real estate tax incentives would go a long way in restoring the corridor.

“That would be really helpful when you’re trying to turn an area around and keep it from a downward spiral,” he said.

Cherry Road is still thriving despite competition from “political forces” moving economic development to the south, Whitley said.

“I’m a believer in Cherry Road--great traffic, great history,” he said.

Making Cherry Road part of ‘college town’

Three miles away from Whitley’s plaza is another believer in Cherry Road: Charlie Ruffalo, owner of Substation II in front of Winthrop University.

Ruffalo, who has owned the restaurant on Cherry Road for about 27 years, wants to invest in an outdoor patio for customers.

His plan to expand seating could benefit from an idea city leaders are tossing around concerning zoning rules and building regulations.

Part of a Cherry Road revitalization strategy could include changes to zoning requirements, making it easier for businesses to expand or re-fit spaces that are close to sidewalks and nearby properties.

Developing on Cherry Road, Meyer said, is not like starting from scratch and some exceptions to rules may be needed to help businesses thrive.

A new patio at Substation II could cost between $5,000 and $8,000, Ruffalo said.

The patio would help build a “cafe-friendly” environment, he said, which is a goal of Rock Hill and Winthrop’s plan to bolster a “college town” atmosphere.

Like some other business owners, Ruffalo says incentives programs for new or existing stores on Cherry Road could be a shot in the arm for investment. They also could help Cherry Road businesses thrive.

"Give us the incentives you're giving Old Town to do things to make a pedestrian and cafe-friendly (area),” he said.

Rock Hill’s Downtown Now program helps new businesses by providing paid rent rebates, improvements to downtown buildings and business license fee reimbursements. The area often is called “Old Town.”Immediately after the city’s Cherry Road strategy meeting in March, city council members approved giving “growth management incentives” to three downtown businesses and to a company moving into its Riverwalk business park.

Rock Hill will reimburse Physicians Choice Laboratory Services $89,192 in impact and building permit fees for moving into Riverwalk. Over the next five years, the company plans to invest $24 million and bring in 364 new jobs.

The city is also reimbursing a building permit fee for downtown’s Millstone Pizza restaurant, which opened earlier this year in the Old Town Market Hall, owned by Main 7 LLC.

The market hall’s developer and the owner of a neighboring building on Caldwell Street have spent a total of about $500,000 to renovate their space.

The city council approved reimbursing the building owners $11,142 in fees paid to the city. Millstone Pizza, which has created 20 new jobs in downtown, will be reimbursed $1,288 in fees.

Some council members questioned the incentives, saying during a March city council meeting that they didn’t know more reimbursements would be made to the downtown businesses.

Last year, the council approved paying $39,000 toward the pizza restaurant’s rent over the next five years and voted to set aside about $775,000 for the Old Town Market Hall development.

Councilman Osbey Roddey asked if March’s incentives for downtown would be the last round of money the council would be asked to spend on the buildings. Rock Hill’s Economic Development Director Stephen Turner said yes.

Mayor Pro-Tem John Black questioned how investors find out about incentives because March’s applications for “growth management incentives” were the first four requests since 2010.

Any new business making investments in downtown can apply for the incentives, Turner said. Until recently, he said, there have been no major renovations or investments in downtown since 2010.

It wasn’t possible to know the dollar amount last year because the “growth management incentives” package is a reimbursement, Pender said.

Councilman Kevin Sutton said the city’s spending on the downtown project was like a “never ending cycle.”

Sutton cast the lone dissenting vote to the incentives for downtown and voted unanimously with the rest of the council on the Physician’s Choice reimbursement.

His “no” vote wasn’t against the downtown businesses, Sutton said, but against the fact that the council wasn’t told about the predicted expense last year.

“As a council, we can’t get a deal--think we’ve got a deal--and six months later find out there’s five or six thousand more dollars,” he said after the meeting.

“It’s just like this project...has been an ongoing incentives flowing out. And there’s got to be a fairness issue. I mean, there are other businesses in town, other people downtown. You know, when do you put too much emphasis on one small project?”

The push for more development on Dave Lyle Boulevard and in downtown has been successful, Whitley said, but Cherry Road has a lot to offer.

The road’s traffic count and connecting streets to another major commercial hub--Celanese Road--give Cherry Road the potential to resurrect as a regional shopping destination, he said. Riverview Road, particularly, with its proximity to Riverwalk, could be a prime spot for the city to start with incentives, Whitley said. Riverwalk includes a walking trail; plans call for a large residential and commercial development project. Doing something to draw development in such as a multi-family complex, he said, could “freshen up and beautify that area.”

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