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Does Durham, N.C. hold keys for Bleachery's future?

As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rock Hill city manager David Vehaun would visit nearby Durham to watch the city's minor league baseball team play.

The Durham Bulls' stadium is adjacent to the American Tobacco District - more than a million square feet of shopping, residences and office space. It also features 22 miles of biking trails, five restaurants and the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham.

More than 20 businesses operate in spaces where loads of tobacco were once processed into Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and other popular brands of cigarettes.

The businesses pay homage to their past. You can have their hair trimmed at the American Tobacco Barber Shop or live at the Apartments at American Tobacco.

The district's design has won the city of Durham awards for Best Mixed Use Development, Best Renovated Commercial Property and Best Redevelopment Project - but it wasn't always like this.

Vehaun remembers with what the area looked like 20 years ago - old, abandoned buildings and structures, including a powerhouse, water tower and smokestack.

"If I had not gone and seen it with my own eyes, I would not have been able to believe what they have accomplished in Durham," he said.

"It's absolutely remarkable. It's one of those things, quite honestly, you have to see, with regards to what can be done with old buildings."

Rock Hill city officials are taking notes from Durham as they look to redevelop the historic Bleachery site, the former home of the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. and a critical project for the future of downtown Rock Hill.

Vehaun, economic development director Stephen Turner and Beverly Carroll, a member of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. board, visited Durham in May.

Staring at the remaining buildings on the 23-acre Bleachery site - the Lowenstein building, a neighboring structure, the powerhouse and a tower - Carroll thought, "What can we do with this?"

"A lot can be done," she said at a recent meeting of the Economic Development Corp. board. "We need to see it happen.

"There is a new energy about what is possible for the Bleachery and what could come along."

Overwhelming support

The American Tobacco Company was once one of the largest tobacco companies.

The company traces its roots to 1865, when conscripted Confederate soldier Washington Duke was released from a Civil War prison. He went home to his 300-acre farm near Durham but found little left except for some tobacco.

With his family's help, he pulverized and cleaned the crop and took a wagon load to Raleigh.

Duke and his sons competed with the popular Bull Durham Tobacco Factory.

One of Duke's sons, "Buck" Duke, decided the Duke family could generate profit from the growing cigarette market. After he was successful, he joined forces with four rivals, forming the American Tobacco Company.

The company closed in 1987.

More than a decade later, officials with Capitol Broadcasting Co. saw past the flaking paint, layers of dust and abandoned buildings, envisioning a space filled with offices, residences and businesses - and an attraction for those leaving a Durham Bulls game.

The first steps were taken in 1999. It wasn't until 2003 that Durham entered an agreement with the company. The city and county agreed to finance construction of parking decks to support the redevelopment project.

Within a few years, the first tenants moved into the newly renovated district, a $200 million-plus, public-private partnership.

"While there have been detractors few and far between or other developers that would like to have the public/private ratio of investment that American Tobacco had - roughly one-to-five public to private," said Kevin Dick, director of economic and workforce development for Durham, "the support from the public, elected officials and the business community has been overwhelmingly positive."

Most of the buildings are nearly fully leased with tenants such as Duke Corporate Education, McKinney Advertising and HTC.

Future projects include two more office buildings, another parking deck and apartment units.

The renovations have revitalized the city, Dick said.

"American Tobacco, because of its amenities, location and character, has helped transform downtown from a stagnant place with no activity, a perceived high rate of crime and 3,800 employees in the mid-1990s to a vibrant downtown with increasingly high activity and over 14,000 employees today," he said.

Cautious moves ahead

Vehaun said there are several similarities between the tobacco district and the Bleachery site, specifically that they both have a powerhouse building and water tower.

"It's very difficult to imagine how a building like that could be used and what could be done it," he said of the powerhouse.

"It's a little smaller, but for all practical purposes, it's the same space."

The Bleachery opened in 1929 in the former Anderson Motor building. At one point, it was the largest cloth printing and finishing plant under one roof in the world, according to city documents. It closed in 1998.

City Council adopted a Textile Corridor Master Plan which creates a vision for redevelopment.

Proposed uses for the Bleachery site include converting the powerhouse into a microbrewery, restaurant and entertainment venue; marketing some areas as restaurants or stores; and turning the former Lowenstein building into office space.

Seeing the American Tobacco District's renovations of similar buildings has shed some light on "practical" solutions and ways that the buildings can be "easily amended" into something "very business-friendly," Vehaun said.

But first, city officials want to travel to Durham to see the project.

The city took ownership of the Bleachery site in April. Vehaun said there are no specifics on what the next steps will be, other than evaluating utility and infrastructure once the Durham trip is complete.

There is no cost estimate on the Bleachery redevelopment, either.

Vehaun said the Bleachery is in a tax-increment district, meaning any development on the site could be funded through taxes generated from there.

"The public thus far has been supportive of what we've done," Vehaun said. "The next steps we take, we want to take very carefully, and we want to do it in a way that builds public and private support."