‘College town’ struggles to gel

Businesses aim to find Winthrop connection

adouglas@heraldonline.comAugust 12, 2013 

Freshmen students who move onto Winthrop University’s campus this week may not know it, but school and Rock Hill officials have been working for years to plan and build a “college town” for them.

It once took shape in the form of Thursday’s “College Night” at Scandal’s nightclub on Cherry Road, near Winthrop.

Decades before that, some flocked to Daddy’s Money – later named The Money – a live music venue and bar that opened in the 1960s across from Winthrop.

Over the years, the southern stretch of one of Rock Hill’s busiest roads has been home to a revolving door of restaurants, anchored by some that have lasted.

Students can find an organic grocery store, sushi, subs and McDonald’s if they leave campus and cross Cherry Road.

They can find fried chicken and beer on tap within a 10-minute walk of the university. Downtown Rock Hill is a 20-minute walk from campus.

The problem is that there seems to be a “curtain” around the college, keeping the more than 6,000 students from spending large sums of time – and money – at Cherry Road businesses, said Butch Bailey, owner and operator of Scandal’s nightclub before it closed in 2011.

Fast-moving traffic on the four-lane thoroughfare dividing Winthrop from some of Rock Hill’s sandwich shops and stores doesn’t help coax pedestrians across, he said.

Officials and many business owners say they hope that a $1.5 million York County “Pennies for Progress” road work project slated for Cherry Road will address the pedestrian safety problem. The project is intended to create safer crossings for pedestrians and slow down traffic.

County officials are now negotiating contracts for the project.

Until the street feels safe enough for students to cross, Bailey said, the amount of Winthrop traffic businesses see will be limited.

A Rock Hill native, Bailey started working as a DJ at The Money just one week after he graduated from high school.

He opened Scandal’s in 1988 when he was 23 years old.

‘College town’ plans

Bailey attended meetings and tried to fit in to what officials said they wanted in a “college town,” he said, but he felt a strain between his bar and the city and Winthrop’s “college town action plan.”

Student business gradually dropped off, starting in the early 2000s, he said.

Before shutting down Scandal’s, Bailey said he noticed more students staying on campus, entertained by options in Winthrop’s DiGiorgio Campus Center, which opened in 2010.

Scandal’s had a dance floor, “WU brew” and live music sometimes.

But a reluctance to cross Cherry Road and the college crowd’s changing preferences contributed to the bar’s ultimate demise, Bailey says.

David Kiser, owner of the bar formerly known as The Money, says he also had problems drawing Winthrop students to his business.

His music club and bar, Firewater 110, is for sale after it closed last month.

Kiser’s reasons for closing the business were personal, not a reflection of hard financial times, he said.

Still, Firewater 110 had trouble tapping into the Winthrop student market, and Kiser said he’s not sure most people in the community will realize the club is gone when classes start on Aug. 20.

“I don’t get the feeling that we were beloved,” he said.

Kiser owned the club as The Money for two years and as Firewater for one year, battling the venue’s reputation of being unsafe after a deadly shooting in the parking lot nearly three years ago. Some band members were celebrating inside their recreational vehicle when two men broke in and tried to rob them. A gunfight ensued, and one of the robbers was killed and a band member was injured.

The other robber pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“We knew we’d never be able to create our own destiny as long as we were living in (The Money’s ) shoes,” he said.

A fan of the “college town” concept, Kiser said he had a different experience than Bailey did in working with city and Winthrop officials.

He read case studies provided by the university that shed light on what students want in a “college town.” College officials and representatives from Winthrop and the Rock Hill Police Department were helpful, he said.

The problem with the “action plan” for the area surrounding the campus is that “there’s just nothing that college kids are really interested in,” Kiser said.

To cater to Winthrop students, businesses need an “artistic slant,” he said, and “deep pockets” to revitalize and improve South Cherry Road.

Much of the land and many of the buildings near the campus have different owners.

The area lacks a single vision, Kiser said. A “master developer” – similar to the strategy being used for Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park – may be needed to make the “college town” a reality. A development firm or individual could buy up all the surrounding properties, he said, and create a successful multi-use area.

“It’s going to take the right person, with the right vision and the right capital. You need a success before people are going to follow,” he said.

With Winthrop’s strong arts culture, the immediate area around the university could become a place like NoDa, Charlotte’s arts district, Kiser said.

The college’s students already swarm to NoDa, he said, adding, “I used to see it every weekend: College kids jump in their cars and drive to Charlotte.”

‘Suitcase school’

Some cars head for Charlotte, but some students are headed home on the weekend, which is easy for them because the majority of Winthrop’s students are from South Carolina.

The weekend exodus has given the university the reputation of being a “suitcase school,” says Cale Medley, general manager of Groucho’s, a restaurant across the street from Winthrop.

Medley, a 2011 Winthrop alumnus, said more than anything, he wants Winthrop to flourish.

Winthrop’s logo adorns Groucho’s walls as a show of the business’ support for the school. A Winthrop logo also is displayed in the Sub Station II restaurant nearby.

Grouchos’ stay on Cherry Road across from the campus has been more successful than others, with the restaurant celebrating its fifth year as students return for classes.

Medley estimates that about 20 percent of the restaurant’s business comes from Winthrop students or employees.

Business could be better, he said, but Cherry Road – the “bloodline” of Rock Hill – feels unsafe for most pedestrians who cross the street.

“There’s nothing about Cherry Road that says, ‘Hey, slow down, people are trying to cross the street,’” he said.

The upcoming road project should help, Medley said, but college students still need more options on Cherry Road for the “college town” concept to find success.

“Groucho’s, Sub Station and Pub House are not enough to keep people entertained,” he said.

The Pub House has enjoyed a packed house of Winthrop students since Jason Townsend started as general manager one year ago, he said.

The bar and restaurant’s proximity to the campus, Townsend said, is a key to its success.

Most of Townsend’s customers walk from the campus to Pub House but don’t have to cross Cherry Road to get there.

While not aware of the city and Winthrop’s “college town action plan,” he says he’d welcome improvements to the area, especially safety features on Cherry Road, which most people deem “dangerous.”

Improvements are forthcoming and will likely overlap with the city’s efforts to develop Knowledge Park in the area between Winthrop and Rock Hill’s downtown, said Larry Williamson, a university representative on the Knowledge Park working group.

Williamson is married to Winthrop President Jayne Marie Comstock, who started in her job last month.

The working group makes recommendations to the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit entity. Comstock is an elected member of the corporation’s board.

One aspect of the Knowledge Park plan is to implement a street car that officials hope will entice students to the downtown area and to new development being courted for the site of the old Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., commonly called the Bleachery.

The street car is important, Williamson said, and will help everyone – not just students – commute between Cherry Road and downtown Rock Hill.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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