When Rock Hill leaders began exploring ways to enliven the drab-looking water treatment plant on Cherry Road, it seemed like a logical next step.
Workers were burying overhead utility lines, planting trees, rebuilding sidewalks and installing new storm drains as part of a $12 million makeover of the corridor. But the water plant still loomed over Cherry's busiest stretch -- looking like an industrial site or maybe a medium-security prison. Hoping to jazz it up, city planners decided to get creative.
Four years later, their efforts have veered off course, leaving the original goal in jeopardy and prompting a public backlash that could linger.
The plan they settled on -- an art piece at the corner of Cherry and Mount Gallant roads -- has been put on an indefinite hold. City leaders said last week they would suspend paying $50,000 in hospitality taxes for the project and instead try to raise the money through private donations and grants.
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The uproar over the art piece appears to offer a lesson in the power of symbols. When an underlying public sentiment -- in this case, frustration over government spending -- finds a symbol to latch onto, it takes off like gas to a fire. Initially, city officials put together plans for water fountains that would have cost $250,000 before scaling back to the art piece.
Lowering the cost did little to assuage critics.
Residents voiced their anger through phone calls to City Hall and postings on The Herald's Web site.
"I doubt too many tourists will be visiting the water treatment facility on their visit to Rock Hill," reader Ralph Adams wrote on herald online.com.
"Do they really want a reason for the water filter plant to stand out?" asked Randy Hunsucker, another local resident. "I would think the lower profile it is, the better."
But long-timers bring a different perspective. They know Rock Hill has a long history with public beautification projects, whether it's trees and shrubs, sculptures or a statue of a now-beloved baseball player. Supporters say it takes time for the value of these investments to be appreciated.
"I remember when Casey at the Bat was at Cherry Park -- there were a lot of folks that didn't see that as an important thing," said Mayor Doug Echols, referring to the Mighty Casey statue at the Cherry Park softball complex. "And yet, it's become an iconic kind of figure where thousands of people have their picture made. It's a matter of what's in the eye of the beholder."
The difference is that beholders are giving greater scrutiny to how elected officials spend money. Some critics say out-of-control government spending is partly to blame for the current economic turmoil. Many are upset over the passage of a federal stimulus package estimated at $787 billion.
The backlash over the water plant art ties into a larger frustration.
Defenders argue the art piece would be another step in the long-running effort to re-energize Cherry Road. They point out that out- of-towners would help cover the price tag. The project would use hospitality taxes, which come from a 2 percent tax on prepared food and drinks at restaurants and bars.
Since 2002, city officials have used the tax for scores of improvements, from ponds and fountains at Glencairn Garden to new dugout roofs at Cherry Park. The tax helped pay for the city's Manchester Meadows soccer complex and the Rock Hill Tennis Center.
Even before the hospitality tax was enacted, Rock Hill leaders devoted money to spiffing up the city's image. It's part of a long tradition that Echols inherited from his predecessors. In 1958, Mayor John Hardin arranged for the city to acquire Glencairn Garden on Charlotte Avenue from the Bigger family.
Three decades later, Mayor Betty Jo Rhea and City Manger Joe Lanford oversaw the Empowering The Vision campaign to help Rock Hill evolve beyond its textile roots.
Current City Manager Carey Smith brought the same ethic to Rock Hill, having worked in the vacation towns of Hilton Head Island and Daytona Beach, Fla.
"When I moved here in '75, we were a mill town," said Gary Williams, now CEO of the Williams and Fudge Co. "When the mills started closing, we started dying. Betty Jo Rhea and Joe Lanford said we've got to create our own identity. It's been one little piece at a time all through the years."
But some of those pieces sparked conflicts, too.
In 1989, the city commissioned sculptor Audrey Flack to create the four Civitas statues that stand at the entrance to TechPark on Dave Lyle Boulevard. A fifth stands in City Hall. When the statues were dedicated in 1992, protesters showed up with black balloons to denounce what they called frivolous use of some $1 million in public money. Funding came from a special tax from property in TechPark.
In more recent years, the city has pursued a number of other beautification efforts. Some residents criticized a decision in 1992 to spend $129,000 for a copper dome on City Hall. Others disapproved of a $232,000 project completed in 2005 that put a brick façade on the Black Street parking deck in downtown. The project included $7,200 for photographs of vintage automobiles made in Rock Hill by the Anderson Motor Co.
The scrutiny in today's climate is greater. Amid the current economic crisis, taxpayers are less willing to embrace projects they view as non-essential.
Kinch Edwards, owner of Kinch's restaurant in downtown, offered a measured view. He said art should be part of the city's thinking. But timing is important.
"While we need to fill in the gaps toward making our city what we want it to be, the timing is probably not the best right now," Edwards said. "It may be the deal of the century. We may be getting it at a bargain, I don't know. But this is a time when everybody needs to tighten their belts a little bit, and say, 'Let's be real prudent.'"
What is the hospitality tax?
Hospitality tax revenues come from a 2 percent tax on prepared food and drinks at restaurants and bars. Here's the catch: The money must be spent on tourism-related upgrades.
Rock Hill enacted the tax in 2002. Clover, Fort Mill, Tega Cay and York also levy the tax. York County passed the tax in 2006.