Celanese site closer to rebirth

A $600 million plan to transform the Celanese site on Cherry Road into a massive hub for offices, shops and homes is inching forward, with developers hopeful of unveiling a formal proposal by the fall.

The ownership group, known as the Greens of Rock Hill, presented its vision to the city's Planning Commission Tuesday night, saying construction will begin as soon an agreement is reached with the City Council.

Before that can happen, however, the two sides must strike a deal on paying for road improvements. Roughly $5 million is needed to improve Cel-River Road, which runs through the 1,000-acre site.

That cost will be divided between the city, state and site owners. The two-lane road will likely be widened to five lanes.

"We're anxious to get started," site manager Dave Williams said after the meeting. "We're ready to start. We need to finalize the public-private partnership."

Called River Falls, the complex will take 10 to 15 years to complete. It's the largest single development project in Rock Hill's history. Plans include:

• A shopping village facing Cherry Road similar to Birkdale Village in Huntersville, N.C., where stores and restaurants are built around central lawns.

• An industrial park with roughly 4 million square feet of industrial space, larger than any other park in the Charlotte area. Rock Hill's Waterford Business Park, by comparison, has 124,800 square feet.

• Upscale homes on wooded land along the Catawba River.

• A public elementary school on Eden Terrace between the shopping village and home sites. The Rock Hill school district lists the site as a "preferred" location.

More than $40 million spent

To the relief of many neighbors, no properties would be annexed into the city other than the former Celanese land.

The property is widely considered to be York County's best available place for new companies and one of the best between Charlotte and Columbia. The reason is location -- in full view of Interstate 77 and close to railroad lines, Rock Hill and Fort Mill. The property stretches for 1,000 acres, far beyond what is visible from Cherry Road.

Those advantages help explain why the Celanese property hasn't faced the same challenges as other textile sites around South Carolina that have sat dormant for years.

At Celanese, more than $40 million has already been spent since 2005. Some 220,000 cubic yards of debris have been discarded, and 56,000 tons of steel have been carried away on trains and trucks.

Williams said he hopes to hold a media event soon to tout progress on the environmental clean-up efforts.

When construction is finished in more than a decade, the new tenants should generate roughly $25 million in taxes and utility revenues -- equal to 12 percent of the city's current general fund.

Earlier this year in a meeting with homeowners who live near the site, the developers raised the possibility of buying up properties from families willing to sell. That idea appears unlikely, though, because it would take only one unwilling homeowner to make the purchase unfeasible.

"They said they wanted everybody to get together and give them a price," said Grady Mullinax, 71, who lives in a mobile home on Carhart Road and owns three others nearby. "He knows we can't get everybody together out here."

Not dependent on Dave Lyle

Williams said he hasn't gotten particularly involved in the recent push to extend Dave Lyle Boulevard into Lancaster County, though he is well aware of the potential benefits.

"Certainly, it would tie into our project, so from that perspective, we think it's something that should be considered," he said. "(But) we're planning on moving forward as if it's not going to occur because we don't control that."

At its peak, more than 1,600 people worked at Celanese, making materials used in home furnishings, suit linings and cigarette filters. In its final years, a dwindling customer base and competition from overseas markets forced a series of job cuts, and the plant closed for good in April 2005.