Worthington: Proposals validate the vision of Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park

dworthington@heraldonline.comJune 16, 2013 

There are three takeaways from the recent meetings with prospective developers of Rock Hill’s proposed Knowledge Park.

First is the validation of the Knowledge Park vision.

The idea has been developed over years of study while buildings at the Bleachery and downtown sat unused. It came into sharper focus when the city and local business leaders saw a high-tech park as a way to connect Winthrop University and downtown, creating a community for the “creative class,” people who want to live, work and play in an urban environment.

Validation comes from those willing to invest their own money. As the Fairmount group of Cleveland wrote in the introduction to its proposal, the Knowledge Park was a well thought-out plan needing “only the right partner to complete the vision.”

Yes, hyberbole to a degree, but the words were repeated often by other developers who want to invest here – and make a profit.

The second thought from the recent meetings is the need for one master developer to turn the vision into reality. Some members of the Knowledge Park group appeared ready to select a project or two, sign agreements, and move forward.

But as group member Jason Broadwater said, the result would have been a “short-term win followed by three long-term mistakes.”

Development of the Knowledge Park won’t be a short-term project. It will take time to develop the right projects for all the key players – dorms, offices and a performance center for Winthrop, a combined Winthrop-York County library, a downtown office for Rock Hill schools that embraces the district’s forward-thinking philosophy. And those are just a few of the projects envisioned for the Knowledge Park.

The right projects also mean the right combination of funds, some public, some private. The mix will almost certaintly change from project to project. The majority, however, must come from private sources.

And it should be constantly evolving. As Forest City of Cleveland noted, its work as the developer of the University Park at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., has been done over many years.

Third, and most importantly, is a trolley line.

The trolley would not only be the thread that joins Winthrop to downtown, but it could be the economic driver for the Knowledge Park, say those willing to invest in the Knowledge Park.

There has been a healthy skeptism since the the trolley idea was broached about 1995, when Winthrop was envisioning what the university would be like in 20 years. Two of the ideas involved rail – a connection to Charlotte and a local trolley down Oakland Avenue to downtown.

The city later hired a consultant to evaluate the idea. But some on the study group – including Lee Gardner, president and CEO of Family Trust Federal Credit Union – remained unconvinced. He said the idea was an ornament and not essential.

The Knowledge Park group carried that skeptism forward. They made it clear that prospective developers would have to convince them that a trolley was needed.

After listening to the proposals, Gardner said he is convinced. “The trolley is an essential piece of the puzzle, without a doubt,” he said.

The trolley is essential, said the prospective developers, because it creates destinations, places to be developed. Once rail is installed, it creates a stronger level of confidence in investing in those areas.

Trolleys are a hard sell locally. Just ask former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. He lobbied hard for one. Now, the new Charlotte City manager, Ron Carlee, has taken up Foxx’ banner. The first thing Carlee did was rebrand the idea as the Gold line.

It will take more than a new name for a trolley to succeed in Charlotte. But Carlee, former manager of Arlington, Va., understands all too well what mass transit means. The Metro subway in Washington, D.C., transformed Arlington, turning each stop in the county into an economic epicenter.

Potential developers of the Knowledge Park see the same opportunity, on a smaller scale, in Rock Hill. The prospects have some such as Gardner envisioning a day when some form of mass transit links the Knowledge Park to the Manchster and Galleria shopping areas, to Piedmont Medical Center, to the Riverwalk, maybe even to the expanding Newport area.

Too grand? Possibly. But it’s hardly unrealistic. After what members of the Knowledge Park group of business leaders have seen, they understand the potential for transforming the core of Rock Hill. They also know that the ideas put forth by possible developers could be extended elsewhere in the city.

Don Worthington 803-329-4066 dworthington@heraldonline.com

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