The Rock Hill Body Co., once among the Southeast's largest makers of metal shells for school buses and soda trucks, is nearing an unexpected rebirth.
Crews are turning the West Main Street building into 21 senior apartments. Eighteen three-bedroom patio homes are planned on the back of the property. Work on the main structure should be completed by February.
The $7 million project - dubbed Cotton Mill Village to reflect the building's original days as a textile mill - should transform a local landmark in a way few could have imagined.
Supporters hope it also energizes the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood after a long and painful decline.
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"I went in about a month ago, and they had taken all the rotten beams and wood out," said Walter Hardin, a Winthrop University vice president whose family owned the property. "They're doing an amazing restoration job."
During its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, the factory made truck bodies for customers from Louisiana to West Virginia, including Coca-Cola distributors adding to their fleets in the post-World War II era.
Workers shaped the frames and painted color schemes - even the iconic Coca-Cola logo.
A young John Hardin, the future mayor of Rock Hill, spent his teenage years selling sodas to thirsty employees. He pulled around the "dope wagon," a mobile canteen that carried cold drinks.
Fifty years later, the building sat in decay as weeds climbed the white brick walls. The complex was used mostly for storage, with a welding business in one section.
Residential developer Kevin Connelly of Columbia took on the project with a vision for residential units. Next door, Connelly developed a 72-unit apartment complex called Innsbrook Commons and 42 townhouses called Cherry Laurel.
Connelly plans to use state tax credits available to developers who rehab old textile mills. His company specializes in restoring old buildings around the state using a similar approach.
Rock Hill hopes for more than a snazzy building. The larger goal: a shot of momentum for aging Hagins-Fewell.
Police efforts to combat crime in the neighborhood over the past four years are mixed, law enforcement figures show.
Property crimes dropped by nearly 50 percent since 2006, but incidents involving drugs and violence persist. Officers recorded 34 drug cases this year, compared to 31 in 2006. There have been 19 reported violent incidents this year compared to 24 in 2006.
Hoping to spur an urban renewal, the city spent $710,000 on a Hardin Street makeover that brought sidewalks, street lights and new underground pipes.
Bulldozers cleared the ruins of Arcade Mill to make way for green space called Arcade Meadow. A paved trail passes a smokestack preserved from the mill era.
Neighbors are beginning to use the trail, said Hagins-Fewell leader Zelma Reddick.
"I go there about every day," Reddick said. "Folks are enjoying it I believe."
As many as 40 new homes are built or planned around the edges of the former textile site.
"The burned-out mill was really a terrible drag on all those homes," said Mary Foote, the city's Textile Corridor and Old Town redevelopment supervisor.
"If you remember what it looked like five years ago, it's almost a completely different area."
Finding a new use
In recent years, Walter Hardin considered turning the old building into a flea market. School district officials briefly talked about putting Rock Hill's third high school on the block.
When Connelly approached the family about apartments, the Hardins thought it made good sense. Connelly plans to display factory photos in the lobby to recognize the building's prominence in Rock Hill's history.
"It's a rich part of Rock Hill's history - a sign of times gone by," Hardin said. "Kevin has really gone the extra mile to save it."