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Rock Hill agrees to demolish, buy Bleachery

After Rock Hill leaders finalized a long-awaited plan Thursday to demolish and take ownership of the Bleachery, Will Stephenson was asked to share his thoughts. He described a day of sadness and relief.

Stephenson's late wife, Lynn, bought the Bleachery out of foreclosure in 2003 and had dreams of turning the property into houses, shops and entertainment with an amphitheater and public park.

But the vision never blossomed. Stephenson died last fall at 43 after complications from a blood clot, leaving the Bleachery's future in doubt and prompting Rock Hill officials to take a new course at the old mill site near downtown.

In a 6-1 vote at City Hall on Thursday, Rock Hill leaders agreed to commit $5 million in public money to tear down most of the complex.

The city also declared an intent to buy the property for $900,000 once it has been razed.

"This is not what Lynn wanted, but now I can move on," Stephenson told The Herald in an e-mail. "When the economy went south, Lynn's business went with it. I need to be taking care of my two children."

The demolition -- expected to start this summer and to last six months -- will be handled by Stephenson's surviving partner, Will Simmons, owner of Action Demolition in Clover.

"With the passing of Lynn Stephenson, our vision was lost -- and our force," Simmons said. "I'm a demolition expert and a scrap metal trader. I am not a builder."

Stephenson had agreed with tearing down much of the site, but she wanted to oversee its rebirth as a thriving commercial hub. After her death, Stephenson's company moved out of its offices on the Bleachery grounds.

"The city finally got it, didn't they?" said Stephenson's father, Johnny Williams, a former Bleachery print shop employee. "She wanted to develop it -- that was her dream. She just didn't live to see it done."

Fires added urgency

Public-health hazards posed by the Bleachery were put on display last summer when a pair of intentionally set fires sent smoke billowing into area neighborhoods. City leaders said they were left with few choices.

"Doing nothing was simply not an option," Mayor Doug Echols said Thursday.

The city will reimburse Simmons for razing the buildings and removing asbestos. The first payment will come from a $2.5 million bond through a special tax district at the site. Within a year, another $1.5 million payment will be made.

Payments won't begin until the site is demolished to the city's expectations.

The lone "no" vote came from Councilman Kevin Sutton, who said he needed more guarantees about where the money will come from. Sutton is concerned Winthrop University could buy University Place Apartments, depriving the city of $203,300 in annual tax revenues available to cover demolition costs.

The apartment complex is the biggest contributor to a special tax district created to spur revitalization in the Textile Corridor, a collection of old mills between downtown and Winthrop. As a public university, Winthrop does not pay property taxes.

"If University Place somehow came off the tax rolls, that would significantly change how we pay for this and what we're able to do," Sutton said. "Then we're really struggling just to make the debt payments. I think the general fund would have to come in and help."

Winthrop officials said Thursday they have no plans to buy University Place. Talks halted after the death of Stephenson, who developed the apartment complex.

"We're not having discussions with anybody right now," Winthrop spokeswoman Rebecca Masters said. "We haven't for some time."

The city of Rock Hill will take the deed to the Bleachery property for $1. By becoming publicly owned, the property would qualify for federal brownfield grants to pay for removing any contaminants discovered in the ground.

Heating oil and metal-based dyes with traces of chromium, copper and aluminum are the main issues, environmental engineer Steve Irminger told The Herald.

Irminger surveyed the property for Stephenson in 2008 and said he will return next week to re-launch his work after being hired by the city.

"Until we start peeling back the slabs and actually looking underneath, we won't know for sure," Irminger said.

"But my feeling is there's not going to be surprises."

Simmons will be paid the remaining $899,999 purchase price within 15 years, according to the deal.

A final $1 million payment also will be due within 15 years, satisfying the $5 million demolition and asbestos removal costs.

Future remains unclear

The hope is that a clean, ready-to-build-on site will appeal to private developers.

Economic development boosters view the Bleachery as the missing link between downtown and Winthrop, which has expanded westward in recent years.

"I don't think anybody on this council wants to be the developer," said Councilwoman Kathy Pender. "I'm not planning on that. But we want to get it ready."

When the city sells the cleaned-up land to a developer, proceeds will go toward repaying demolition costs.

"You wouldn't have development without demolition," City Manager Carey Smith said. "The buildings would remain as they are. You'd have no prospects for development."

City leaders offered no timelines Thursday for when they expect to attract a developer and move ahead with revitalization. The effort has been under way since the early 2000s.

"The economy will have a lot to say about that," Smith said.

Other businesses will have an easier time investing in nearby properties after the Bleachery is gone, officials said.

Family Trust has talked about moving its credit union headquarters back to the Textile Corridor, where it was founded a half-century ago.

The first swipe of a backhoe will be done by Barney Nichols, who worked 44 years at the property and serves as an unofficial historian. Nichols deserves the distinction, Simmons said.

A rebirth at the Bleachery ought to include some type of memorial to Stephenson, said Councilwoman Susie B. Hinton.

"She took a risk in purchasing this land," Hinton said.

"I'd like, somehow, that we consider some way of remembering her."