Rock Hill as a hub for Web-based commerce?
It could happen, says the 34-year-old tech savant behind a new local project called The Hive.
"To throw all these people together, who knows what's going to happen?" said Jason Broadwater, founder of RevenFlo, a Web marketing firm on downtown Caldwell Street. "The possibility for spontaneity is so high."
Students will come to The Hive to learn how to become independent contractors in Web marketing and design - potential niches for a city struggling with a slew of office vacancies and an unemployment rate above 20 percent.
It's time for Rock Hill to pursue a bold experiment, Broadwater says, rather than put together a study and hope it leads somewhere.
A place to inspire young minds
When it opens Jan. 10 in an open, airy room filled with desks and computers, The Hive will be a place where young people can find career inspiration, says Greg Rutherford, president of York Technical College.
"We hope they bring their lives to Old Town," Rutherford said, "and influence others to do the same."
City Council members budgeted $70,000 over two years to help launch The Hive, to be housed on the third floor of the Citizens building. The program will run as a partnership between Broadwater's firm, York Tech and Winthrop University.
Joel Bowen is among the first crop of Winthrop digital information design majors who will take courses at the center. The senior has had an early taste of career success, though he doesn't graduate until the spring.
Bowen parlayed a job on Best Buy's Geek Squad repair crew into a special assignment with the company's corporate Web design team.
Not bad for a 19-year-old - who recently found himself in a conference room at Best Buy headquarters in Minneapolis, speaking to executives about the latest Web initiatives.
"It was a very surreal experience," Bowen said. "All these high-ranking people, and they're listening to me present about Web design. That was pretty humbling."
Searching for answers
As Rock Hill reinvents itself in the post-textile era, the city can no longer pin hopes on landing large, established companies, said Bev Carroll, chair of the city economic development board.
Downtown landlords are struggling to fill 40,000 square feet of vacant office space, according to the most recent city estimate.
"The businesses of the future are the one- and two-person firms," Carroll said. "It's those kinds of jobs we think are going to be the basis of Old Town - and help us fill the vacant space that we have."
Small victories might offer Rock Hill its path toward recovery.
The city-affiliated Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. no longer has cash to tackle major initiatives - as it did in the 1980s and 1990s in developing business parks and removing the roof from downtown, said director Stephen Turner.
The organization has $2.97 million in net assets, down from $4.42 million in 2000, according to its budget.
"If that trend line continues," Turner told a business committee last week, "we're going to have an organization that no longer has the capacity to do the kinds of things RHEDC has done in the past."
Rock Hill city government should work harder to support small businesses, said Councilwoman Kathy Pender.
"We need to look at this as a pilot," Pender said at a recent meeting. "I look for our economic development people to bring more of these ideas to us."
RevenFlo showcases the youthful, "creative class" demographic that Rock Hill is trying to cultivate. Young employees bustle about the Caldwell Street office, working on tasks for clients. Leading the way is Broadwater, who played guitar in a punk band, published a novel and taught high school English at various stages of his career.
"Let's drop (30 to 40) people on Main Street on Jan. 10 instead of devising a strategy for how to get people downtown," Broadwater said. "The worst that can happen is all that energy and commerce is temporary and The Hive closes after two years."
Broadwater recounted an experience to demonstrate the current problem. In the spring, he hired a group of five Winthrop University seniors to do contract work for RevenFlo.
As soon as they ditched caps and gowns after graduation, the students moved to Charlotte in search of a lively social scene, even though work would allow them to live anywhere.
"It was automatic, they were just going to leave Rock Hill as soon as Winthrop was done," Broadwater said. "It's been that way for a long time. They saw nothing going on down here."
Exodus of young people
It's not just a local problem. South Carolina has a negative growth rate in the age range of 25 to 34, according to a 2006 Palmetto Institute study.
More people in that age group leave South Carolina than come here, perhaps not terribly surprising in a state with the sixth-highest jobless rate in the nation.
Generations of Rock Hill residents once worked at textile mills such as the Bleachery, now an expanse of rubble awaiting redevelopment on the edge of downtown.
With textiles gone, the city has wrestled with how to attract new commerce. A $75,000 consultant study planned for next year will lay out a jobs recruiting strategy for Old Town, the central business district.
Young people entering today's workforce must be nimble and versatile with technology, explains Jim McKim, a Winthrop professor overseeing the digital information design major.
"I tell students, if you can do your job in a cubicle all by yourself, that job can be done in India, China or anywhere in the world - and probably for a lot cheaper," McKim said.
"You need to be able to work on a team and speak these other (Web) languages."
McKim and colleagues will guide 30 to 40 college students through coursework that includes producing Web sites for community groups. Few will be able to match the real-world experience of Bowen. Depending on his gig with Best Buy, the Winthrop senior says he'd consider staying in Rock Hill, but will have to consider all options.
"I don't plan to move away any time soon," Bowen said. "It's just a matter of where my career aspirations take me."