March 8, 2014

Knowledge Park: Learning from others’ mistakes and successes

As Knowledge Park takes shape, Rock Hill leaders busy doing their homework; hopeful elements are in place for successful redevelopment project.

The vision: A long vacant industrial site reinvigorated with technology-based businesses, the arts and support from retail shops, restaurants and residences.

Incubators and institutes that reflect the area’s strengths, attracting creative thinkers and investors to fuel the site’s high-tech economy.

Partnerships that connect the university to downtown.

Is this Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park at the Bleachery in a nutshell?

Not exactly.

It’s a project similar to the one unveiled last week for Rock Hill; this one was proposed four years ago for Savannah, Ga.’s, riverfront. The lifestyle technology zone would have an art-design incubator, a technology incubator, an innovation center to study maritime logistics and academic investments by Georgia Tech, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and maybe Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic. Retail, shops, restaurants and residences would complement the high-tech uses.

It is part of a master plan developed in 2009 that has lingered before the city’s council since 2012. No active leadership is pushing it. The city’s downtown redevelopment director has left and Savannah has a new city manager.

“It’s been largely scrapped,” said Charlotte Moore, director of special projects for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Could the Knowledge Park in Rock Hill face a similar fate?

Possibly. But Rock Hill appears to have the essential components to make the Knowledge Park – a plan to develop the corridor between downtown and Winthrop University – work, say those knowledgeable about urban redevelopment.

Elements for success in Rock Hill are consistent leadership, a buy-in from multiple constituents and a willingness from each major partner to give a little to gain a lot, according to several people interviewed last week by The Herald, including Lise Sundrla, Savannah’s former downtown redevelopment director; Joe Cardona, vice president for university relations at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.; and Jeff Michael of the Urban Land Institute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“It take leadership in many places,” Sundrla said. “From business leaders to the chamber of commerce to the city, all of which have to be on board. They have to see this as the next progressive step. You are promoting a lifestyle for the community, something that contributes to quality of life and nothing does that better than technology.”

On Monday, Sora-Phelps, the master developer for Knowledge Park, unveiled its vision for the 23-acre Bleachery. The Sora-Phelps partnership proposed 19 buildings with 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space. The site, once home to the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., could employ as many as 1,000 people, most in high-paying, technology-related jobs. Sora-Phelps and other investors are expected to invest nearly $200 million in Knowledge Park.

Above all, the Knowledge Park is a jobs development strategy. The desire is to create a community that attracts the “creative class,” people who want to live and work in an urban environment. Creating a high-tech environment is seen as one way to keep students from Winthrop University and York Technical College from leaving Rock Hill, as well as attract others to the city.

It’s a message that needs to be repeated often, Sundrla said. “You’ve got to talk about jobs. It drives the economy.”

It’s a message that didn’t come through clearly at Monday’s presentation, said Stephen Turner, Rock Hill’s economic development director. “The focus is on jobs. If all we do is move people around we haven’t accomplished anything. We want 1,000 new jobs. We need to keep our focus.”

That message, he said, will be reinforced at all future Knowledge Park presentations.

The Knowledge Park concept was unveiled at the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp.’s annual planning retreat in October 2012. Since then, the group along with business leaders and the city have moved fairly swiftly to advance the concept, from hiring a master developer to the city making physical improvements around the Bleachery.

The Knowledge Park would link two partners: the city’s downtown and Winthrop University. There have been several plans over the years to physically link the two, but none have moved past the planning stages. This time, there is serious talk of a trolley line that would run from Winthrop and Cherry Road, through the Bleachery, to downtown and the new Downtown East park and offices project now under construction.

There is a feeling among some that this time it’s different. Plans won’t linger on the shelf, shovels will turn dirt and projects will rise from the ground.

What’s different?

This time the city owns the Bleachery site.

This time there is support from a group of Rock Hill businesspeople, some willing to invest money into Knowledge Park projects. Among them is developer Skip Tuttle, who noted when you “have skin in the game” and the interest clock is ticking, you want results.

And, this time the city, the RHEDC and Winthrop have entered into an agreement with a developer that’s willing to put its money into projects, not just take a planning fee. The city is not paying Sora-Phelps. The partnerships’ money will come from what it builds and fills, either by itself or with other investors.

To attract the partnership of Sora Development of Towson, Md., and Hensel-Phelps construction of Greely, Colo., the Rock Hill City Council approved a master developer agreement that gives Sora-Phelps the first option to redevelop Bleachery sites.

That level of control has – and hasn’t – worked for Sora.

It worked on a project involving Glassboro, N.J., and Rowan University, which is often held up by many as a poster child of Sora’a success.

Fifteen years ago, Glassboro acknowledged it needed to revitalize its downtown. The push came from the remaining businesspeople who said they would not reinvest unless changes were made, said Joseph Brigandi, the borough administrator.

The push also came from the university, said Cardona, the vice president for university relations. “As the university goes, so goes the borough.”

After one redevelopment effort failed, Sora came to town. The university, the borough and Sora signed a master development agreement.

The borough purchased needed property with Sora paying the interest, Brigandi said. The project was divided into phases and with each phase the city would either sell the land to Sora or retain ownership and lease it.

The $300 million revitalization project, about one-half complete, has yielded classroom and dorms for Rowan; restaurants and retail space including a Barnes and Noble bookstore that serves the university and residents, and restaurants spread out over 26 acres. The new Rowan Boulevard now connects the university to a new town square.

The project has been so successful that Glassboro no longer exclusively uses Sora as its master developer, Brigandi said. Success means the city can now bid projects individually and on its own, he said.

Most of all for residents, Glassboro has not raised increases taxes to pay for the projects, Brigandi said. The rate has increased, but not because of these projects, he said.

Rowan University filled some of its wants, but with a cost, Cardona said. The cost was leases of 20 to 30 years, he said. “Could we have done independent building and gotten a better deal? Yes,” Cardona said. But the university could not have gotten all the projects they wanted cheaper, he said. “The biggest challenge is everyone has to be willing to give something up.”

In Hagerstown, Md., Sora invested almost a year’s worth of effort and got nothing in return.

Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown attorney and former house majority in the state’s legislature, helped bring Sora to town to jump-start a downtown with two difference sides.

One side is a renovated Washington County Free Library, the Maryland Theater and the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

The other side is a downtown of hookah bars, bail bondsmen and tattoo parlors. “Each of these businesses is its own remote little fort,” he said.

Sora’s possible plans for Hagerstown included a new downtown baseball park for the Hagerstown Suns, a Class A farm team for the Washington Nationals, a new home for the Washington County Board of Education offices, improvements to the downtown arts district and multiple spinoff projects.

Sora sought almost $1 million from the city, said council member Kristin Aleshire. “We were not sure what we were getting for that,” he said. As proposed, the money would have been leveraged to secure more funding.

The council, Aleshire said, was uncomfortable with “one entity driving the train.”

Poole said, “We never got a formal ‘no.’ They just talked it to death and we moved on.”

The result is Hagerstown has hired another consultant for $80,000 to design a master plan that defines the downtown area, defines the city’s limitations and what is realistic, and comes up with a number of projects, Aleshire said. The city’s theme for downtown is now education, he said.

While Rock Hill shares similarities with the Glassboro, it also has other positive factors, local businessmen said.

Andy Shene, former chairman of the RHEDC and now leader of the Knowledge Park business group, said a visit to downtown Durham, N.C., in October 2011, was an “ah-ha!” moment. It showed Rock Hill residents they didn’t have to settle and could dream big, Shene said. As a result of that visit, RHEDC put a “razor focus” on jobs and the Bleachery.

Another factor is Comporium’s recent announcement to bring super-fast gigabit Internet service to Rock Hill. The high-speed Internet service will be essential in attracting high-tech companies, Shene said.

Comporium’s investment in the $9 million Fountain Park Place – a four-story, 48,000-square-foot office-retail building – is also a game changer, said its developer, Warren Norman.

The site is officially in the area considered to be the Knowledge Park. The building is part of the ambitious Downtown East plan that some say will transform downtown. The plan also calls for a multi-million dollar park with a dramatic water fountain, a hotel, more office and retail space and a performing arts center that could be shared by the community and Winthrop University.

Market and feasibility studies for the hotel and performing arts center may start soon.

Another positive factor, Norman said, are regularly scheduled meetings between developers and city officials to discuss how the city can be more business friendly. “We are not talking to talk,” Norman said, “these are open-ended discussions.”

Former Rock Hill mayor Betty Jo Rhea sees another positive factor. Rhea, 83, attended Monday’s presentation by Sora. She said she was surprised at the number of businesspeople attending in the packed former courtroom at the Gettys Art Center. Most of them are too young to remember the Bleachery in its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, she said.

Rhea remembers shaking hands and seeking votes during the shift changes at the plant. She also remembers injured third-shift workers coming to her house to have fingers sewn up by her father, James O. Dunlap, the Bleachery’s doctor.

The number of “younger” people there gives her hope things are different this time, she said.

But she also wants to make sure the past is honored.

“The people who worked at the Bleachery loved their jobs and wanted to do good work, and loved their community,” she said. “That feeling should be part of the Knowledge Park.”

Jeff Michael, of the Urban Land Institute at UNC Charlotte, said Rock Hill’s efforts come at an opportune time.

Rock Hill; Fort Mill; Concord, N.C.; Gaston County, N.C.; and several areas around Charlotte are candidates for a “knowledge park.”

Rock Hill, he said, has always held itself out as something different. “There’s benefits to being out front on this,” he said.

A key, Michael said, is Winthrop having the research power to support the Knowledge Park.

Poole, the Hagerstown attorney, said there is no guarantee that Sora-Phelps will succeed. But the alternative – doing nothing – is far less desirable.

“If you do nothing, it will get worse,” he said.

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