Don Worthington

Streetcar in Rock Hill: city toy or economic driver?

An Atlanta streetcar passes a sign on the street warning pedestrians in a crosswalk as it makes its inaugural trip through downtown on Dec. 30, 2014. The streetcar's 2.7-mile route connects neighbors to several tourist attractions, museums and entertainment venues.
An Atlanta streetcar passes a sign on the street warning pedestrians in a crosswalk as it makes its inaugural trip through downtown on Dec. 30, 2014. The streetcar's 2.7-mile route connects neighbors to several tourist attractions, museums and entertainment venues. AP

Assuming the York County Council follows its published agenda, Monday will be the deciding vote on whether to approve extending the life and size of a special tax district in Rock Hill that city leaders say is essential in developing Knowledge Park.

During discussions with the city, some county olfficials asked  that any tax money if would forgo not be used on a controversial streetcar project. The Rock Hill school board, which also derives tax revenue from the tax district, made a similar request,  but dropped it before signing the extension.

The agreement before the county tonight does not have that stipulation.

Some county council members, as well as school board members, have questioned the wisdom of an expensive streetcar project where the cost-per-mile is in the $40 million to $50 million range and annual operating expenses are estimated at $1 million or more.

Yet at the same time, the York County Council is asking the city to study “public transportation options” for the tax district that stretches from Winthrop University to downtown Rock Hill. County council members want the city to study a system that would encompass Winthrop and downtown, as well as Piedmont Regional Medical Center and York Technical College.

The tax district and streetcar discussions come at a critical time for Knowledge Park. The city is close to considering a master developer agreement with the partnership of Sora-Phelps to redevelop the former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. site, commonly known as the Bleachery.

Revenues from the special tax district will help the city pay for public improvements to the site.

Sora-Phelps – a partnership between Sora Development of Towson, Md., and Phelps Development of Greeley, Colo. – would be taking the bigger, private investment risk on the project.

It is also a critical time for the Knowledge Park Leadership Group – largely business leaders who have a vested interest in downtown. The group has not only advocated for extending the life of the tax district, it also has been studying the best ways to create a physical linkage between the university and downtown. The group hopes to make its “transportation alternatives” recommendations to city council by the end of the year.

City economic development officials have been adamant. The linkage – the streetcar – is to create economic development, not simply be a transit project.

But as the leadership group continues to talk, it’s clear there is a point where economic development and moving people merge.

Phase one of the project may be linking Winthrop and downtown, but planners believe future phases need to include stops near Piedmont Medical Center, York Tech and the Manchester shopping complex at Dave Lyle Boulevard and Interstate 77. Visionaries then see buses fanning out to other stops in the county.

Visits to Cleveland, Tucson, Ariz., and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte, have shown city officials and business leaders what’s possible.

In Tucson they studied the Sun Link, a streetcar that connects the University of Arizona to downtown. The nearly 4-mile system cost $196 million. It opened in July 2014 and just recently carried its millionth rider, a university student on her way to class.

In Cleveland they studied the RTA HealthLine, a 7-mile dedicated bus line that links the city’s medical and business centers. The $200 million investment completely remade the Euclid Avenue corridor from curb to curb. Stations on the line have the feel of a subway station. In some instances businesses moved their front doors to take advantage of the transit system.

In both cases Rock Hill officials and business leaders heard “the switch went on” for economic development when a permanent, “special experience” was put in place.

In Tucson, more than 50 restaurants have located along the streetcar line. In Cleveland the investment has generated $5.8 billion in economic development in and around the Euclid corridor, a staggering $114.54 gained for every dollar spent on creating and launching the HealthLine, according to Cleveland officials.

Local officials also learned it takes a widespread buy-in to make these projects possible. Officials in both cities had to convince a broad, grassroots coalition that the economic development/transit projects were not a city toy or novelty.

They learned, too, you have to be persistent. In Tucson it took four tries before voters gave their approval to move forward.

As impressive as the Cleveland and Tucson successes are, Rock Hill officials still are looking for a city that’s more like, well, Rock Hill. They are hoping an upcoming visit to the streetcar in Little Rock, Ark., may yield more comparable numbers.

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

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