He's doing his part to clean up Chester

George Powell of Chester scrapes old paint off a vacant building at 231 Gadsden St. He decided to repaint as part of a personal effort to clean up Chester's "Gateway."
George Powell of Chester scrapes old paint off a vacant building at 231 Gadsden St. He decided to repaint as part of a personal effort to clean up Chester's "Gateway."

CHESTER -- The 1989 Pontiac station wagon that's pushing 200,000 miles creeps from the old Victorian house George Powell renovated on Pinckney Street to the tiny white building where his latest project awaits.

The destination is 231 Gadsden St. Powell doesn't own the property or even know what's inside the walls that are at least 100 years old.

He just wants to paint it.

"I thought, 'Somebody ought to do something,'" he said. "And I thought, Well, I'm somebody.'"

A 63-year-old Michigan native, Powell drove past the building for years on his way to his job in Fort Mill. He prefers to let his handiwork show people how hard he toils. He grew tired of hearing people talk about cleaning up Chester.

"I'm a doer," he said. "Not a talker."

So in February, he started calling around to see who owned the property. He found out Norfolk Southern owned the land and that Melton Chappell, brother of York County Councilman Curwood Chappell, leased the building, a longtime family office.

Powell spent months trying to track down Melton Chappell, who lives in California. He finally reached him recently and got permission to paint the building.

Powell's task began July 13.

A retiree, Powell can't say why he picked this place to clean. In fact, he has other projects waiting on him at the Pinckney Inn, the 18-room bed and breakfast he runs with his wife, Emily.

But on a recent Wednesday morning, with shirt unbuttoned and untucked, Powell was sweating and painting the little building that last was a peach stand.

The coat was nearly complete, and he'd even put artificial flowers in front for an added touch. He doesn't plan to do more than the initial layer of paint.

"I'm just a one-man show," he said. "I don't have heavy equipment. I don't have a chain saw. I just have a little time."

The building sits in a blighted part of Chester commonly called "The Gateway," a series of dilapidated buildings and crumbled remnants of the Springsteen mill site.

A group of local leaders, led by County Councilman Alex Oliphant, have vowed to clean up the area, which they see as an eyesore that hurts the city's image.

Powell shares that concern and hopes to inspire others -- not to simply talk about beautifying their community -- but to scrape a little soil under the fingernails.

"Do something," he said. "Don't just sit around and expect somebody else to do it."

That kind of attitude, Oliphant says, is needed to change the community.

"Just one man, you know, made a big difference right there in that one spot," he said. "He's just one more of my heroes."

Although Oliphant said he initially balked at the idea of Powell cleaning up someone else's property, he later changed his mind and even brought a chainsaw to clear away some small trees.

Like Powell, Oliphant said twiddling thumbs won't accomplish anything.

"He doesn't just talk about ... making something happen," Oliphant said of Powell's work. "He's absolutely making it happen."