Faced with high unemployment and a slew of office vacancies, Rock Hill soon might turn to the outside for help in attracting jobs.
City officials are talking about hiring a consultant to give advice on how to recruit employers to the central business district.
Three finalists have been picked from 14 firms that applied for the task, city records show. The idea surfaced publicly in April when city economic development officials spoke of a need for fresh, innovative recruiting strategies in the post-textile era.
Rock Hill needs to identify the types of businesses to target, says Stephen Turner, director of the city's Economic Development Corp. Past efforts have focused on business parks and areas closer to Interstate 77. Now, says Turner, a strategy is needed for the city's historic and cultural core, known as Old Town.
"Give us an idea of where we're most likely to be successful," he said. "So we're not just going out there randomly knocking on doors."
City Manager Carey Smith estimated the price tag at $75,000. Federal grant money could cover half the cost, Turner said.
Tough sell in down economy
In July, Butch Brindel sent several hundred e-mails to attorneys, accountants, financial advisers and small businesses in York County and surrounding areas, inviting them to an open house to learn about available spaces in the downtown area.
Six people showed up, said Brindel, CEO of the Piedmont Regional Association of Realtors.
"People are hunkered down," he said. "When their leases come up for renewal, guess what their landlord is doing? They're negotiating for a lower rate. It's tough to get people to move."
The Old Town area - a 1.5-mile radius around downtown's Main Street - has about 100,000 square feet of vacant office space, Brindel says.
By comparison, the Target store at Manchester Village is 125,000 square feet.
At a town hall meeting Monday on employment hosted by the Weed & Seed program, Turner was blunt about the uncertain economic prospects facing Rock Hill.
"We don't know what kinds of jobs are coming," he told 30 or so people in attendance at the Emmett Scott Center.
The city's unemployment rate is near 20 percent - nearly twice the national average. The rate in York County is 15.7 percent. Chester County's is 17.9 percent, and Lancaster's is 16.1 percent. The three counties are among the state leaders for joblessness.
Who should pay?
Some City Council members have expressed doubts about hiring another consultant. The city already has brought in experts to help with an Old Town master plan, a Textile Corridor development plan and - most recently - a College Town Action Plan. If a consultant is hired for the current project, money should come from the Economic Development Corp. rather than city taxpayers, said Councilman John Black.
"I'm not a big fan of hiring outside consultants, period," Black said Wednesday. "The city has good people (and) ought to rely on their talents to make decisions we're paying them to make."
Rock Hill has sought to transition from its textile past, when the major employers were mills such as the Bleachery, the Celanese plant and Ostrow Textile Co. More recently, AbitibiBowater has cut workers and trimmed production at its Catawba paper mill.
There was a time when one in every five Rock Hillians worked at the Bleachery, officially known as the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. Crews are now demolishing much of the site to make way for homes and businesses.
Turner points to Charlotte's South End district, where design and marketing firms have blossomed in former warehouses and industrial spaces. Something similar could happen in Rock Hill, Turner believes, but it would take focus and commitment, given today's economic challenges.
Turner said he has noticed an uptick in visits from businesses looking to move or grow, though it's mostly "tire-kicking" and no major deals have materialized.
"This is an ideal time," he said, "because we can be positioned when the market starts coming back, and know who we're going after."
A history of consultants
Four recent city initiatives that involved the use of consultants:
College Town Action Plan
Goal: Create a livelier atmosphere around campus with stores, restaurants, businesses and public gathering spots.
Result: A report to be issued later this month calls for Cherry Road pedestrian improvements, a green corridor through the Bleachery site and an Old Town trolley loop, among other ideas.
Cost: City Hall, Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. and Winthrop University split the $114,000 cost to hire Ayers Saint Gross and RCLCO.
Airport Advisory Group
What: Study the future of the Rock Hill/York County Airport in response to criticism from neighbors about possible expansion.
Result: The group did not take a position on a proposed 1,000-foot runway extension. It urged better communication with neighbors and quicker responses to complaints.
Cost: The city paid public relations specialist Ted Matthews $28,000 to act as facilitator.
Police Staffing Study
What: Plan for current and future staffing needs at the Rock Hill Police Department.
Result: So far, the city has committed to hiring 12 new police officers, including six with federal stimulus money.
Cost: The city paid Carroll Buracker & Associates $78,750.
10-Year Homeless Plan
What: Find ways to curb homelessness over the next 10 years.
Result: Rather than build a new shelter, aid groups opted for transitional housing programs where homeless people can work toward self-sufficiency.
Cost: Consultant Nancy Parks Hunter was paid $14,345 in grant money.