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April 25, 2012

Family Trust makes Bleachery ‘security deposit’

Credit union which got its start at the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co., will build $7 million headquarters on White Street.

Dan Fling and Samuel “Smokey” Childers and hundreds of others passed through the gates of the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. to find their security.

They worked long hours for their wages. It was honest and honorable work that still defines what Rock Hill is.

Fling and Childers sought an extra sense of security, becoming members of the company’s credit union. Fling joined in 1957, the first year it opened. Chandler joined the following year, buying his $5 ownership share as he passed through the company’s gate.

Childers, who would serve on the credit union’s board of directors for 24 years, liked the payroll deductions. It allowed him to save $2 per pay check, and because the saving deductions came out first, “I didn’t miss the money.”

Fling, who worked paycheck to paycheck, took advantage of the credit union’s loans. The loan committee met on Wednesdays and seldom turned down members’ requests. “I got what I needed when I needed it,” Fling said. “I still owe them money,” he said with a chuckle.

Fling and Childers were special guests Wednesday as Family Trust Federal Credit Union announced it was making its own “security deposit,” pledging to invest $7 million in a new company headquarters at the corner of Laurel and White streets.

The new headquarters is a few yards from the plant’s Lowenstein building where Family Trust got its start in a storage room as the textile plant’s credit union.

The new headquarters location was a deliberate choice. Lee Gardner, the credit union’s CEO and president, wanted to honor the firm’s historical roots. He also wanted to say Family Trust believes in what the textile plant site can become.

What would become of the plant, commonly and affectionately called the Bleachery, has been asked since June of 1998 when Springs Industries silenced the machines that had bleached, dyed and finished textiles for almost 70 years.

There have been studies, speculations and the sense that nothing will happen, that all the talk about linking Winthrop University to the downtown via the “Textile Corridor” is just that, talk.

But with Family Trust’s action, the promises and the plans become real, said Rock Hill economic developer Stephen Turner. “This is the catalyst.”

The obstacles to redeveloping the 23-area site are many. The buildings that have been saved were designed to make textiles. It will take a visionary to see and sell the space for other uses.

It also will take lots of money. That Family Trust is willing to invest $7 million should give other investors confidence to consider Bleachery projects, Turner said.

You don’t have to look far, however, to see what’s possible. Gary Williams renovated the Cotton Factory into office space, focusing on what makes that building stand out – the high ceilings, the big windows and skylights, the broad pine flooring. Williams chose to highlight, not hide, the Cotton Factory’s history.

Gardner paid homage to Williams on Wednesday, saying, “ He showed us what we could do.”

While Family Trust is constructing a new building, its architectural plans borrow clues from mill buildings of old. There are big windows. There are exterior wooden supports for a “sun visor” that shades the building’s windows. The three-story building will be made of brick – just like the Bleachery’s buildings.

It’s not just the architecture where Family Trust is making a commitment. Gardner said he hopes to rent space on the first floor to start-up businesses. Gardner’s vision is that these start-up businesses could provide Family Trust goods and services in exchange for lower rents. The goal would be to see these businesses grow from a few workers to many employees, forcing them to seek bigger office spaces, freeing up the Family Trust space for yet another start-up venture.

Family Trust is not rushing in construction. It said it will wait until the city makes improvements to White Street, resurfacing the streets and turning the remainder of right of way into a pedestrian corridor with 10-foot-wide sidewalks. Work on the street and sidewalks could start as early as this fall.

Gardner said he expects it will take about a year to build the new headquarters. He predicted it would be ready for use by late 2014 at the earliest.

It can’t come soon enough for people such as Fling and Childers. Watching the Bleachery die slowly was bittersweet for them.

“This is the best thing they can do,” Fling said of his credit union’s construction plans. “This is a blessing to Rock Hill. It will be a quality building and have quality people. I hope it brings more people here.”

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 •

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