As a child, Steve Peterson remembers his mother worrying about traffic when they went to the Carowinds amusement park. They had to leave home early to beat the traffic there and leave the park early to beat the traffic home.
All Peterson wanted to do was ride the rides, especially the roller coasters. He was happy if he went home "sunburned and sunbaked."
Today, Peterson is the park's neighbor. The steel skeleton of Carowinds' Intimidator roller coaster rises outside the front window of the Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers off Carowinds Boulevard, where Peterson is general manager.
The restaurant's walls are filled with photos of coasters and other park rides, some retired. Traffic is now his concern. On popular days, such as July 4, park traffic can all but shut down his restaurant.
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Litter, frequently cited as one of the area's major problems, is also his concern. Often he walks the parking lot, picking up trash.
Jerry Helms has done his share of picking up trash. He is a vice president at Carowinds, one of the longer-serving staff members. Helms started there in 1973, he said, when it was "Carowinds and cow pastures."
Much has changed in the decades since the park opened, but many visitors still have the same impression of their arrival - an exit bordered by a rusting chain-link fence, too much trash, too many signs and too many vehicles on the road.
That's why Peterson and Helms are among the backers of the Carowinds Boulevard Master Plan, a blueprint drawn up by York County planners to transform the interchange into a gateway for South Carolina and the county.
The plan calls for reducing traffic congestion through improved roads and more medians and cleaning up the physical and visual clutters by taking down signs and continuing litter control.
The goal is to create an atmosphere that will spur redevelopment.
And don't forget a new "Welcome to South Carolina" sign. The small official sign welcoming travelers on Interstate 77 is overpowered by a nearby electronic billboard.
With ambition, though, comes challenges.
The plan calls for public-private cooperation, as well as cooperation among business and property owners. It also calls for money - and most of it is unfunded.
Still, Peterson, Helms and others are confident.
"This is an area that needs a vision and planning," Helms said, "One that puts vision and logic together. A plan without that becomes a daydream."
You can hear the traffic noise on the background of Randy Tackett's business phone. He operates Randy's Computers on U.S. 21 southeast of its interchange with I-77. More than 34,000 vehicles pass by his shop daily.
On I-77, more than 128,600 vehicles pass by southbound daily and 99,000 northbound. It is the among the most heavily traveled stretches of highway in the state.
With more than 11 years at the location, Tackett has heard numerous accidents and near misses. He also has spent much of his time picking up trash from neighboring businesses.
Nonetheless, he said, things have gotten better.
The area was once called Fort Vegas because of the numerous video poker stores. The games have gone, the buildings have not. Some are in need of repair and the Carowinds Boulevard plan calls for more code enforcement to clean up properties.
There are mixed signs of success.
Many of the aging properties have for-sale signs. On the corner of nearby U.S. 21 and Springhill Farm Road, a new McDonald's restaurant is under construction. Directly across the road is the Lakemont business park, home to Wells Fargo. The business park's boundaries are carefully landscaped - a model for what planners hope expands along the corridor.
George Stone operates his masonry business on U.S. 21 at a location he admits could be improved. He is open to making improvements, but wants to make sure any changes in zoning are not too restrictive.
The plan calls for encouraging more mixed-used development, places where homes, stores and offices are in close proximity.
Stone and Tackett say the effort to improve the area is encouraging, and each is considering upgrading his properties.
Creating a sense of place
Making aesthetic improvements to businesses and the I-77 interchange are the first phase of a 25-year plan. Plan proponents say a cleaner, more attractive area would lure people interested in making the area a destination, rather than just a stop off the interstate.
Part of making the area a destination is creating a sense of place, and that starts with a "Welcome to South Carolina" monument or sign, as well as a "Welcome to York County" offering.
"A sense of place is important to branding," said Rich Harrill, director of the International Tourism Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. "When people are traveling, they like to feel that they have arrived."
You also need to create something that causes an emotional response which gives them a reason to return, Harrill said.
Becoming a destination interchange is consistent with Cedar Fair Entertainment's vision for Carowinds, said Bart Kinzel, the park's general manager.
"The corporate goal," he said, "is to turn the southern parks into more of a resort feel."
At some point, Kinzel said, Carowinds will reach an attendance plateau, and the growth will be in out-of-park revenues.
Carowinds attracts about 1.5 million visitors annually. It has room to grow attendance - and space to add park rides - before it reaches a plateau, he said.
Five exits and 11 miles to the south, Rock Hill officials have implemented many of the ideas put forth in the Carowinds interchange master plan. The city spent more than $4.1 million to add landscaping, sidewalks, curbing, fountains and towers to the Dave Lyle Boulevard interchange. Most of the money came from a special tax district.
The results have been good for business, said Allison McQueen, property manager for TBC Property Management, which oversees Manchester Village.
"Visitors are talking about the improvements," she said, "and when they are inviting and user-friendly, people are more likely to stay."
McQueen and others want to maximize that potential.
TBC Property Management has joined with The Galleria mall to create the Exit 79 Gateway to Rock Hill Coalition. The group is open to other merchants along Dave Lyle Boulevard, McQueen said. Its purpose is to market the corridor, including using billboards on I-77.
Similar merchant/property owner cooperation is considered essential for the Carowinds plan to succeed.
Peterson, the Wendy's general manager, said Carowinds merchants need to look at themselves not as competing against each other, but complementing each other.
The York County Council was briefed on the Carowinds Boulevard plan last week. The county's Planning Commission is expected to endorse the plan on Monday. A public hearing on the plan is tentatively scheduled for December.
County Councilman Paul Lindemann, whose district includes the Carowinds Boulevard area, said he expects passage, funding and action to happen in short order.
The state has already funded $2.5 million in road improvements. Lindemann said the County Council will look to obtain other state and federal money for improvements. He said the county can't be cautious about investing in the area.
"You can play it safe and spend zero, or you can step up and spend money," said Lindemann, who lost his bid for re-election in a June primary. He predicted the investment would yield a tenfold return. Lindemann is optimistic because of the location of the interchange, within minutes of the Charlotte market.
"God's gift to York County is Charlotte," he said.
Make the improvements, he said, and you can capture more of the Charlotte market, increasing both property-tax and sales-tax revenue.
"Once this is cleaned up," Lindemann said, "people will come."