'Fort Vegas' fades as York County dedicates I-77 welcome sign

Exit 90, the first stop for southbound travelers on Interstate 77 in South Carolina, has been a destination for almost 40 years.

It’s the access for the Carowinds amusement park, which opened in 1973. The park is the No. 1 gated attraction in South Carolina, state tourism officials say.

For years, Exit 90 also was a key access to “Fort Vegas,” a neon-lit row of video poker parlors. The parlors closed in 2000 after the state outlawed them. The games left, but the buildings remained. With litter, rusty chain link fences and the wooden skeletons of old billboards, the area looked tired in recent years.

On Tuesday, York County Councilman Michael Johnson declared, “Fort Vegas is fading away.” Exit 90 has become a tourist destination and a place where businesses want to relocate, he said.

Johnson’s remarks followed the official dedication of the York County/South Carolina welcome sign at the exit ramp from I-77 to U.S. 21 and the entrance to Carowinds. The dedication was at the Comfort Inn conference room as hotel guests walked across the road for another fun-filled day at Carowinds.

“Fort Vegas” has been replaced with restaurants and QT convenience center and road improvements that create better access to the Lakemont business park, Johnson said.

On the Carowinds side of the interchange, the Plaza Fiesta mall has been demolished to make way for a Cabela’s sporting goods store.

Cabela’s is expected to open in the spring of 2015. It’s considered a destination retailer and the store’s goal is to impress customers with an array of services that include an aquarium, wildlife displays, an indoor archery range, a deli and a fudge bar.

Cabela’s officials say they want customers to be wowed by the look and feel of the store and give them reasons “to come back.”

Last year, Carowinds announced a multi-year, $50 million plan to improve the park. This year’s additions include new water slides and a renovated Harmony Hall which is the center of the park’s dining.

Economic development and creating a sense of place – a feeling that you have arrived at your destination and that there is a reason to return – were all goals of a 2000 master plan for the area.

The interstate gateway sign was a priority of the plan.

Johnson and county officials praised the new sign –which cost about $100,000 – but were quick to say the sign is just the first step in reinventing the area.

High on the list of needed improvements are more road work, Johnson said. Cabela’s and new rides at Carowinds could bring thousands more people to the intersection.

David Pettine, York County director of planning, said the roads in the area are state maintained.

“We defer to the state, but there have to be some changes,” he said. In addition to better traffic flow, Pettine said there needs to be pedestrian improvements as well.

Keeping the area litter-free also is a priority.

Alysen Woodruff, the clean community coordinator for York County, said, “businesses have to be receptive” to fighting litter.

The state has two programs to help fight litter. One is the adopt-a-highway program where a business or organization periodically has volunteers clean a stretch of roadway. New World Media has “taken tremendous pride” in its adopt-a-highway sections near exit 90, she said.

The second program, Palmetto Prideways, is for the interstates. Businesses can sponsor a mile of the interstate for clean-up by crews from the S.C. Department of Corrections for $2,995.

While state and York County officials are playing a big role in changes at the intersection, Pettine said he hopes the day comes when businesses see the benefit of reinvesting in themselves and are not driven by state or county actions.