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Progress afoot at site of old Red Coach

Developers are closing in on a deal to build downtown Rock Hill's first privately-funded residential project in recent memory.

A development team envisions 16 townhouses at the former Red Coach Inn property on East Main Street in a proposal that supporters hope will transform a former eyesore into a landmark sign of progress.

Unlike recent projects in Rock Hill's center-city, construction on this one won't require any public money. However, the city has spent $240,000 to buy the site and get it ready for new life.

Other developers have relied on state and federal tax credits -- a way to lessen the upfront risks posed by working in an unproven market. A 72-apartment complex being built on West Main Street is one example of such a project.

At the Red Coach site, development partners Michael LaCount of Columbia and Will Batson of Charlotte have told the city they are willing to go it alone.

"They have confidence that people will want to live near an amenity like what we have in downtown Rock Hill -- restaurants, places to shop, a good atmosphere," said Jennifer Wilford, the city's Old Town Development Manager. "There's something to offer two blocks from where this project is."

The townhouses would be for-sale units rather than rentals, which comes as welcome news to neighbors in surrounding East Town. They say owners typically take better care of their properties than renters who come and go.

Also, opponents of tax credit projects argue that because the units can only be rented to low- and moderate-income residents, many tenants don't make enough disposable income to support surrounding shops and restaurants.

With prices expected to range from $189,000 to $215,000 at the Red Coach site, downtown boosters say they expect the project to attract at least three demographics:

• Young professionals such as those at Williams & Fudge, a locally-owned college loan collection agency that moved its headquarters downtown this summer.

• Retirees and empty-nesters who no longer want to take care of a yard.

• Winthrop University faculty and staff who want to live close to campus.

A formal plan is expected to go before the City Council in the next two months, and construction could start in the spring.

John Miskelley, president of the Historic East Town Neighborhood Association, said the townhouses will complement the stately older homes that line the streets of East Town. Many date back to the 1880s and have been renovated in recent years.

"When it gets to the Dilworth-style neighborhood that we're hoping to be pretty soon, people are going to be dying to be in here," he said. "The key is the continual growth of downtown. It's on the cusp. We're getting close."

Motel torn down last year

The Red Coach once catered to businessmen visiting downtown offices and nearby textile mills but later became home to transients renting by the day or week.

Toward the end, it earned a reputation as a haven for drugs and prostitutes. Junked cars sat abandoned in the parking lot. Fights broke out routinely.

Two years ago, responding to years of complaints from neighbors, the city's Economic Development Corp. bought the property for $205,000 from the bank that had foreclosed on it.

Another $35,000 was spent to raze the buildings and make the site ready for redevelopment.

Lacount and Batson were the only developers to show interest, and their final offer of $130,000 to buy the property is barely more than half what the city has already invested. The two were unavailable for comment.

Still, neighbors stress the investment was worthwhile because it will bring new life to what had been a rundown corner.

"One day this is going to be the trendiest place in York County to live," Miskelley said.

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