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Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park missing local support

The Knowledge Park proposed to link the Bleachery site to nearby Winthrop University and to downtown Rock Hill. City officials recently acknowledged a streetcar may not be the best way to connect Winthrop, the Knowledge Park and downtown.
The Knowledge Park proposed to link the Bleachery site to nearby Winthrop University and to downtown Rock Hill. City officials recently acknowledged a streetcar may not be the best way to connect Winthrop, the Knowledge Park and downtown. dworthington@heraldonline.com

Stephen Turner pointed to paper in his hand.

“We have a logo; that’s all we’ve got,” he said.

To be accurate, Turner, the city’s economic development director, was speaking specifically about efforts to market the Knowledge Park.

But he could have been speaking about the park in general, as even Turner admits there are only about 100 people in York County who truly understand the potential game-changing nature of Knowledge Park.

It’s an oft-heard concern as the city and its partners have struggled to get widespread support for the concept since it was first announced in November 2012. Officially, Knowledge Park is an economic development strategy to bring high-tech and high-paying jobs to Rock Hill.

The goal is to create a community that attracts a “creative class,” people who want to live and work in an urban environment. Creating a high-tech environment is seen as one way to keep students from Winthrop University and York Technical College from leaving Rock Hill, as well as attract others to the city.

Knowledge Park also is a real estate strategy to redevelop the 23-acre site that once housed the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., known as the Bleachery.

But Knowledge Park is more than those 23 acres. It is an urban industrial park that stretches from Winthrop University through the Bleachery site to downtown.

Within that urban industrial park are forward-thinking companies such as Comporium and Span Enterprises that understand what’s possible. Representatives from those companies are members of the Knowledge Park Leadership Group, businessmen who advocate for the park.

There are also many vacant buildings and properties within the urban industrial park, owned by absentee landlords, that simply stand idle.

The big fanfare for the Knowledge Park came when real estate plans were announced almost exactly two years ago – March 13, 2013. That’s the day Sora-Phelps – a partnership between Sora Development of Towson, Md., and Phelps Development of Greeley, Colo. – unveiled plans for 19 buildings at the site with 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space that would create more than 1,000 jobs.

Since then, there have been major gains, especially toward assembling a “work ready” workforce. Economic development relationships between the city, Winthrop University and York Technical College have been as strong as they ever have been, say city officials and business leaders.

But there are an equal number of critical missing pieces. They are either speedbumps or potholes, depending on your perspective.

Still unresolved are plans to extend a special taxing district that would provide funds for public improvements in Knowledge Park, as well as signing a master development agreement with Sora-Phelps.

Just last week, city officials acknowledged a streetcar may not be the best way to connect Winthrop, the Knowledge Park and downtown. Officially, the transit problem is now “New Transportation Technologies.” Linking the three is crucial to creating “economic opportunity” at the Bleachery site, city officials say.

Discussions over the taxing district have been “good dialogues that show the power of not assuming,” in the words of Andy Shene, regional president at First Citizens Bank and leader of the Knowledge Park Leadership Group.

Yet even Shene admits the process has been slow, something business leaders are not accustomed to. Business decisions are usually more streamlined, decisive and quicker.

Both the Rock Hill school district and the York County Council must approve the new taxing district, as each receives tax revenue from the district. The school district has approved extending the life of the taxing district. The York County Council is still considering the request.

Sora-Phelps and the city are negotiating the details of a master agreement.

“They are motivated to get it done,” Rock Hill City Manager David Vehaun said Friday. He said there has been progress on the agreement in last 30 days, and he expects to have it finished in another 60 days.

As for the new transportation technologies effort, the Knowledge Park Leadership Group hopes to make a recommendation to City Council by November.

At Friday’s Knowledge Park Leadership Group meeting, Turner handed members a two-page spreadsheet on legal size paper. It has three columns: Preparation and Demonstration 2012-2014; Building Momentum 2015-2017; and Achieving the Vision 2018-2020.

Under the Building Momentum column are 27 things that must be completed – some by the city, some by private businesses, some by Sora-Phelps.

All are important. But perhaps none is more critical than “completing and implementing a market plan for the Knowledge Park.”

The city has hired Atlas Advertising of Denver, Colo., to develop the plan.

The agency has been hired to tell the Knowledge Park story to others.

What apparently is still missing is selling the vision locally. That’s the most critical missing piece of the Knowledge Park puzzle.

How can you convince others when you haven’t convinced yourself?

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066; dworthington@heraldonline.com.

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