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August 14, 2014

Rock Hill officials want more information before committing to streetcar system

More financial information is needed before Rock Hill City Council will consider moving forward with a streetcar line between downtown and Winthrop University.

More financial information is needed before Rock Hill City Council will consider moving forward with a streetcar line between downtown and Winthrop University.

The council wants to know more about the development potential along the streetcar line.

Questions about the streetcar were raised Thursday during a work session that was attended by members of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp., the Knowledge Park Leadership Group and officials from Sora Development, a member of the project’s master development partnership.

Knowledge Park backers hope City Council will make a decision by January.

The Knowledge Park is Rock Hill’s strategy for developing the corridor between downtown and Winthrop. One aspect of the plan is to redevelop the former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. site, commonly called the Bleachery. As envisioned, the Knowledge Park would attract high-tech businesses and as well as be a place for people to live, work and play.

The Knowledge Park’s primary goal is bringing more high-paying, technology jobs to Rock Hill.

A streetcar line through the Bleachery would be the essential link between the university and downtown, supporters say.

A streetcar linking the university and downtown was first proposed around 1995 when Winthrop officials were envisioning what the university would be like in 20 years. A 2003 consultant’s study also proposed a streetcar. The report resulted in several more years of study.

In 2012 the streetcar concept was endorsed by the Knowledge Park Leadership Group, comprised of business leaders advocating for the park, as well as the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp., the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Rock Hill City Council.

Now that the partnership of Sora-Phelps has been selected as master developer for the Bleachery site, it’s time to get more specific information on what a streetcar would cost and its potential benefits, backers said Thursday. The streetcar system is estimated to cost $20 million to build and $1 million to operate annually.

Sora-Phelps is a partnership between Sora Development of Towson, Md., and Phelps Development of Greeley, Colo.

Council members also want to explore the possibility of having a “rubber trolley,” which is a streetcar with wheels instead of tracks. Mayor Doug Echols asked city staffers to see if a “rubber trolley” with more elaborate stops for passengers is an alternative.

Stephen Turner, the city’s economic development director, said studies show people prefer a rail system over a bus system.

The council also wants to know how the proposed streetcar would affect traffic and roads. As envisioned, the downtown portion of the streetcar line would share the roads with other traffic.

Within the Knowledge Park, the streetcar line could have its own path.

As proposed, the 1.5-mile streetcar line would run along Black, Saluda and Main streets and then through the Knowledge Park to Winthrop. The proposed route has been designed so it does not cross Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

Andy Shene, chairman of the Knowledge Park Leadership Group, said the streetcar does not stand alone. Previous studies have shown that a streetcar could increase the number of residences and commercial space within the Knowledge Park.

City Council members said they want to know the difference in projected tax revenue from development both with and without a streetcar. While consultants have provided information on cities that moved forward with a streetcar, council members also want information on cities that studied the idea but decided against it.

Tom Fore, founder and director of Sora Development, said the streetcar has been incorporated into its Knowledge Park plans. Sora’s master plan calls for 19 buildings on the Bleachery site with 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space. The plan calls for an overall investment of $200 million that could yield $2.8 million in additional property taxes annually. New businesses in the Knowledge Park would create about 1,000 jobs, Sora estimated.

Fore said the site’s development potential is greater with the streetcar. In cities that have incorporated a streetcar as part of a development strategy, the return on investment has been has high as $34 for each $1 invested, according to a 2012 study conducted for Rock Hill.

Echols said while there seems to be general support for the streetcar, more details are needed so “we don’t make a decision out of enthusiasm.”

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