Years ago, Williams & Fudge's Gary Williams was at a luncheon with city of Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols.
Echols suggested Williams move his accounts receivables management firm to downtown Rock Hill, but Williams wasn't sold on the idea.
A week later, Williams visited Durham, N.C., where Duke University had moved its student loan office to a warehouse in the American Tobacco District - nearly 17 acres of office, residential and retail space in an area that was once the production site of the Lucky Strike and Pall Mall-brand cigarettes.
"I walked into that building, and I thought, 'That's what we could do with the old Cotton Factory,'" Williams said Wednesday of the old textile mill in downtown Rock Hill.
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The vision was enough to change his mind, and by 2007, Williams & Fudge had moved into the revamped Cotton Factory with about 300 employees.
Williams mentioned the American Tobacco District to economic development director Stephen Turner.
Now, city leaders are looking to the successful redevelopment efforts of the district and the West Village Complex - formerly home to Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. and now at least 450 loft-style apartments - for the key to the Bleachery's future.
More than 50 Rock Hill officials - including city manager David Vehaun; deputy city manager Gerry Schapiro; City Council members Susie Hinton, Kathy Pender, Jim Reno and John Black; and board members of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. - visited Durham Wednesday to take notes.
They're hoping to get some ideas about how to transform the former Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co., known as the "Bleachery," from a pile of dirt and old buildings into what the American Tobacco District has become - a success story with a hefty economic impact and more than 14,000 jobs.
Back in May, Vehaun, Turner and Economic Development Corp. board member Beverly Carroll visited Durham and were so overwhelmed by what they saw that they proposed another trip with more city leaders.
Vehaun said then the redevelopment efforts were "absolutely remarkable" and it had to be seen to be believed.
Williams agreed Wednesday morning.
"I think they'll see the vision of what can be done downtown with some of the older buildings," he said.
The American Tobacco District effectively mixes professional buildings with residences and the college atmosphere, he said.
Several of those who visited Durham left believers.
The American Tobacco District traces its roots to the late 1800s, when the American Tobacco Co. was formed by the merger of the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory and four rival factories.
The company closed in 1987, and for years it sat stagnant and unused - a blight on the city's landscape.
Durham was a "one-industry town," Turner said, much like Rock Hill's prominence in the textile industry.
"Just like Rock Hill, that industry died," he said. "Durham was left with a shell of empty, abandoned, falling-down tobacco buildings."
Durham officials talked to Rock Hill leaders about the steps they took.
More than a decade after American Tobacco had closed, officials with Capitol Broadcasting Co. saw past the flaking paint, layers of dust and abandoned buildings - envisioning a space filled with offices, residences and businesses, and an attraction for those leaving a Durham Bulls minor league baseball game.
The city of Durham renovated the historic Durham Athletic Park baseball stadium in 1995, hoping it would become a catalyst for downtown development, said Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc.
But they soon realized if they did not develop the abandoned Lucky Strike building across the street, that development would never happen.
"We didn't need to create demand," said Mike Hill, former attorney for Capitol Broadcasting. "We needed to steer demand to this location."
In 2003, Durham and Durham County agreed with Capitol Broadcasting to finance construction of parking decks to support the redevelopment project.
Within a few years, the first tenants moved into the newly renovated district - a $200 million-plus, public-private partnership.
Durham officials admitted there was resistance from the community.
"The community as a whole refused to believe the journey we were on would be successful," Kalkhof said.
But on Wednesday, the "successful journey" was evident to Rock Hill leaders.
More than 20 businesses operate in spaces where tons of tobacco were once processed into cigarettes. It's home to the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. Many buildings are nearly fully leased, with tenants such as Duke Corporate Education, McKinney Advertising and smart-phone maker HTC.
Restaurants in the hollows of former loading bays teemed with customers on Wednesday. A river trickles through the center of the complex. Bands play concerts beneath the Lucky Strike water tower.
A few blocks over in the West Village Complex, lofts created in former warehouse buildings are filled with tenants. And nearby, the Durham Bulls ballpark and Duke Performing Arts Center loom.
City leaders broke into several groups and toured the center, the complex, the restaurants and the lofts.
'Springboard' for the Bleachery
Many comparisons can be drawn between the American Tobacco District/West Village Complex and the Bleachery.
Both are similar in size - American Tobacco's 16 acres and West Village's 23 acres to the Bleachery's 23 acres. Both are located near a college campus - Duke University and Winthrop University. Both are a few blocks from downtown.
The main difference is that the tobacco district had 11 original buildings left to develop, while the Bleachery site has four.
The Bleachery opened in 1929 in the former Anderson Motor Co. building. At one point, it was the largest cloth printing and finishing plant under one roof in the world. It closed in 1998.
Rock Hill leaders have expressed visions of a downtown brewery, restaurant and entertainment venues and office space.
On the way to Durham, Economic Development Corp. chairman Andy Shene joked that anyone who was late for the return train ride would have to catch the next one - which didn't run until the next day.
By the end of the day, Shene noted, visitors expressed how they didn't care if they missed the train because they wanted to explore and enjoy the district even more.
The Rock Hill leaders were impressed with the work done in Durham, he added.
Vehaun also received a lot of positive feedback.
"People are seeing today what we saw back in May," he said at the end of the day. "We've seen a lot of good things. ...We really hope this will be a springboard for future phases at the Bleachery."
Last week, city leaders neared the end of the environmental clean-up assessment at the Bleachery site and discovered it won't require much effort in the actual clean-up process.
The next steps include recruiting developers and marketing the Bleachery.
Tracey Reynolds, a member of Rock Hill's Old Town Association, said the way Durham officials creatively handled each deal with developers and interested parties is a model Rock Hill should follow - especially with existing buildings.
She also knows the public will be anxious to see what will emerge.
"We want to see it," she said. "We know our community wants to see it."
As Rock Hill leaders said goodbye to Durham, Kalkhof - the downtown Durham business leader - had one piece of advice left.
"If you don't vitalize your downtown, you're always going to be behind the rest of us," he said. "People want a vibrant downtown."