Streetcar through Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park unlikely

A streetcar line between Winthrop University and downtown Rock Hill is no longer seen as the economic driver to bring people to the Knowledge Park.

Instead, a planned indoor sports complex will be the draw, regularly attracting people to the Knowledge Park, tucked between the university and downtown with limited access to either Cherry Road or Dave Lyle Boulevard.

The change leaves the streetcar - once touted as the “essential link” that would drive business attractions to Knowledge Park - in limbo at best, and possibly dead, say city and business leaders.

“The streetcar is where it has always been, in its discovery phase,” City Manager David Vehaun says.

The shift in focus comes as the city and Sora-Phelps, Knowledge Park’s master developer, sign a detailed development agreement. On April 25, updated plans for the development of the 23-acre site, once home to Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. plant or more commonly the Bleachery, are set to be announced.

Vehaun said there are no current plans – or timetable – to resume a study of the streetcar and other transportation alternatives.

A consulting firm studying different types of transportation for the Winthrop-downtown link, was told to stop its work at the end of last year and issue a report of what it has found so far. The city is awaiting the final draft of the report from HDR Inc., an engineering consulting firm from Charlotte.

HDR did an initial streetcar study for the city in 2008. HDR was assisting the Knowledge Park Leadership Group – local business people advocating for the Knowledge Park development – in determining which transportation alternative could best meet the the goals of the developer and the city.

The Knowledge Park Leadership Group was scheduled to make its transportation recommendations to City Council last November. That meeting never happened, but Andy Shene, chairman of the leadership group and a senior vice president and market executive at First Citizens Bank in Rock Hill,said he met with Vehaun and Mayor Doug Echols.

“The streetcar is not on the leading edge,” Shene said. “There are other things to be done.”

Streetcar saga

The streetcar proposal has been controversial. Some see it as the long-awaited link between the university and downtown. Others feared it would be a underused, costly service that would drain tax revenues.

The streetcar was endorsed by the Knowledge Park Leadership Group, the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. and the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. Anthony DiGiorgio, then Winthrop’s president, said without the 1.5-mile streetcar line, the university would likely “stay behind its black fences” and not expand towards downtown.

Members of the Rock Hill school board and the York County Council questioned the viability of the streetcar. The two bodies were involved because they had to approve a tax-incremental financing agreement which will help fund public improvements at the site. The two bodies had to approve the agreement because receive tax revenue from the property. They each agreed to forgo some future tax revenue to help spur site redevelopment.

The streetcar idea dates to 1995 when Winthrop leaders considered what they wanted the university to look like in 20 years.

The streetcar returned to the forefront after Sora-Phelps, announced its master plan for the Bleachery site in March of 2014 – 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space and the possibility of 1,000 new jobs, many technology related, and an investment of $200 million that could yield $2.8 million in additional property tax revenue.

At several subsequent meetings Tim Elliott, then of Sora Development of Towson, Md., said the streetcar was an essential link which would increase land values, taxes and possibly allow the city to apply for federal transportation funds. Without the streetcar, development of the Bleachery would be much different, likely losing the retail component and looking more like another industrial park with some apartments, Elliott said.

Elliott is now a partner in Sidewalk Development, which is partnering with Sora-Phelps to develop the Bleachery. Sora-Phelps is a partnership between Sora, which specializes in mixed-use projects involving universities and their communities and Phelps, part of Hensel Phelps, one of the nation’s largest general contractors. Hensel Phelps is expected to lend its construction expertise to the project. It is not expected to construct the new buildings proposed for the site.

Elliott said while he still supports the streetcar, it is a city project, not a developer’s project. He said the proposed sports complex fills the same need streetcar would have – to bring people to the site, supporting the proposed retail shops, restaurants and hotel.

City economic development officials stressed the streetcar was a economic development project and not a transportation project.

As the Knowledge Park Leadership Group discussed the streetcar, the idea turned more and more into a transportation project. Lee Gardner, member of the group and president and chief executive officer of Family Trust Federal Credit Union, encouraged a broader vision, a transportation system connecting key areas of the city – downtown, Winthrop, the area around Piedmont Medical Center, Riverwalk, and the retail corridor along Dave Lyle Boulevard.

Mayor Echols said a “circulator system” between Winthrop and the downtown is still needed, “but it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, which comes first?”

He said once development of the Bleachery begins, it may be time to return to the transportation discussions.

“We still need to move people,” Echols said.

At a later date the city should also consider the idea of a larger transportation system, he said.

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw