Winthrop students to tackle downtown Rock Hill challenge

dworthington@heraldonline.comAugust 12, 2013 

— No matter how you spin it, the decision not to build apartments on East Main Street in Rock Hill was a setback for those who envision an economically vibrant downtown.

Plans called for demolishing the old Woolworth building and replacing it with a five-story, market-rate apartment complex.

The project would have fulfilled several key goals for downtown development:

• It would have brought people to downtown, people who would need services, thus attracting more business to the downtown area.

• It would have been a link between Winthrop University and downtown. The university had promised it would relocate its small business technology center to the first floor of the project.

• It would have increased investor confidence in downtown. The project had not one, but several investors.

The last is, by far, the most important aspect. Many downtown investments have been fueled by the emotional capital of their owners. They are willing to work hard, do whatever it takes to chase the dream of owning their own successful business.

Far too often they run out of fiscal resources and are forced to close, their business sites consigned to conversations of “remember when that was a ...”

Finding the balance between fiscal and emotional capital has been one of the biggest challenges facing downtown redevelopment.

This fall 13 graduate students in the School of Business at Winthrop University will be looking for the right balance between fiscal and emotional capital.

Their task is to develop business plans for four downtown projects. The goal is to take the plans to investors so they become reality.

The ideas being pursued by the students are not new.

One group is evaluating a combination coffee shop, co-operative bakery and newsstand. They think the old Gulf Station would be an ideal location.

Another group is studying a dance-studio-by-day, theater-by-night concept. A third group wants to open an edgy “taco shop” with fresh foods and outdoor dining. The final idea is space for shared work and possibly a business incubator.

Their projects face a history of failed endeavors. Almost everyone wants a downtown coffee shop/bakery but those who have tried couldn’t make it work. It’s been a long time since there was a downtown theater. Restaurants come, restaurants go.

The city is already a partner in two “incubators,” the Hive focused on web development, with the second intent of growing high-tech companies. The idea of creating work space people could share was considered for both incubators, but deemed not workable at those sites.

The students come with energy and optimism. Some have already started their homework, visiting Asheville, N.C., Greer, Sumter and Myrtle Beach to see what is and isn’t working in those downtowns.

They already have learned a few practical lessons in a short time. They talked with property owners who would rather keep their property vacant than lease it. “We have the challenge of building ownership here,” said grad student Gabe Leventis

They also intend to use the power of the cloud to test their ideas. They will be posting their projects to a new local website called Adayremus.com. The site, developed by Revenflo, allows people to post their own community development proposals or comment on the ideas of others.

Developers of the site hope it will involve more people in determining what their community looks like. Quality projects increase quality of life, they say.

The power of the cloud, said Leventis and other students, will give them feedback on the business plans. The graduate students hope to have their work posted on Adayremus.com by Oct. 1.

The website, said grad student Eduardo J. Venegas, hopefully will get more people involved.

The grad students also are being challenged to think small. They have been asked to come up with four “small” ideas for downtown that could have an immediate impact.

Ideas being considered include an “urbanwalk,” similar to the success of the Riverwalk trail along the Catawba River, but located downtown. The path could even have water stations for pets along the way.

An intriguing idea is to take Glen, the Come-See-Me frog, and use him as a marker along the city’s downtown walking tour. The frog, in a variety of forms, could be a find-Waldo-like effort for kids, getting them engaged while their parents learn about Rock Hill’s history.

Whatever the outcome of the projects, the Winthrop students will take what they have read in the classrooms and apply it in the real world. That lesson is far more practical than the class credit they will earn.

The ideas they develop might not be the best ones, but they are likely just the first ones. They will already have taken the step of investing their emotional capital in downtown. Maybe their next idea could be one of the pieces of the puzzle that helps complete a new downtown.

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

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