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Garden at former mill ruins will honor late Rock Hill leader

A remnant of the old Arcade Mill will become part of a memorial garden honoring late Rock Hill City Councilman Winston Searles.

The city spent a decade cleaning up ruins of the old mill, an effort that advanced with prodding from Searles, whose district included the surrounding Hagins-Fewell neighborhood.

Searles died in 2007 at age 85 before the cleanup reached completion. Now, a marker near the mill's preserved smokestack will recognize his service to Rock Hill.

"It's a link to the old and new," said City Manager Carey Smith. "It represents a new direction. Winston appreciated the historic things, but he had a vision and accepted change."

The marker will stand at the start of a paved trail winding through Hagins-Fewell and connecting to downtown. Family, friends and City Hall colleagues plan a dedication in June at a temporary spot, with a permanent site when the trail and garden are finished.

"It'll leave a lasting impression with the people, which is something he tried to do through the years," said daughter Edna Searles.

In 1980, Searles became one of the first two blacks elected to the council, along with retired police officer Frank Berry. He spent the next 27 years pushing the city to stay attentive to problems in the urban core.

Searles pushed for action after Arcade Mill burned in a 1997 fire.

Clean-up efforts moved slowly; inspectors discovered more than 380 storage tanks and barrels -- many contaminated with acids. Because soil still shows traces of contaminants, Rock Hill might not build homes on the actual mill site, instead leaving a grassy clearing.

Affordable homes are being built around the edges of the mill property for families who qualify at certain income levels.

"What a huge difference," said Mayor Doug Echols. "Ten years ago, it looked like a Third World country down there. A lot's happened, and Winston deserves a lot of credit."

Searles' son, Chauncy, died about six months after his father from complications with diabetes. Daughter Edna returned to Rock Hill after 40 years in Atlanta and has been involved in planning the memorial.

She said a garden tribute makes sense because it will be an active place.

"I think more of this than I do a street, highway, building, tree or whatever," she said. "This is the best thing they could've done."