Leaders hope plans will rejuvenate historic downtown

FORT MILL -- Chip Smith cast a disapproving gaze at the constant caravan of cars streaming down Fort Mill's Main Street past his restored, historic office building.

"Look at this traffic," he said. "It's all day long. They are like ants. They never stop."

About 9,500 cars per day traverse what was once the hub of the former mill town's commercial center, said Andy Merriman, the town's planning director.

But plans are being hatched by the town and the private sector to rejuvenate the historic downtown, draw shopkeepers and visitors and make it more pedestrian-friendly.

Last week, following a year-long moratorium, town leaders held their first public hearing on overlay zoning that will prohibit businesses such as car lots, convenience stores and mechanics shops from operating on Tom Hall Street from Monroe White Street to Springfield Parkway. About 19,000 vehicles ply that street each day, Merriman said.

Next month, the town will review new zoning for Springs and Elliott streets to prevent heavy commercial businesses in those old neighborhoods.

"Who needs a gas station over there?" Merriman asked. "That is our historic neighborhood."

Other plans in the works include:

• Shops topped with apartments are in the planning stage on a field of several acres next to Confederate Park.

• Fort Mill attorney and downtown property owner Bayles Mack has similar plans for the former site of Tony's Pizza and the florist shop, Main Street businesses recently destroyed by fire.

• The town is using a $280,000 S.C. DOT grant to provide crosswalks -- including one across Tom Hall Street -- new hanging street lamps and improved landscaping.

• They have applied for $230,000 more for additional improvements.

• The town and DOT are mapping a truck route that would keep that traffic off of Main Street, and hopes are high that the future southern bypass around Fort Mill also will divert traffic.

Merriman cited the "massive amount of traffic" within a half-mile of historic homes.

"At one time, the downtown served the needs of those rooftops," he said. "Fort Mill was the original Baxter Center. We want to recapture that."

The center to which mill town families and farmers once converged to shop, eat ice cream and socialize is a state road, often used today as a cut-through. Visitors still can have lunch and dinner downtown, buy antiques, get a massage, have their knives and scissors sharpened, learn Tae Kwon Do and more, but the shops are difficult to access on a street filled with parked cars and stop-and-go traffic belching emissions.

Smith said he's seen drivers parked along Main Street have close calls in the traffic.

The town has two large parking lots behind the store fronts, but it's not easy to fill them. There has been a lot of business turnover in the downtown, Merriman admits.

"We're hoping the Tom Hall overlay will draw businesses," he said.

Smith is president of Move Fort Mill Forward, a group whose mission is to make the town a destination. His mother operates an antique and gift shop next door.

"I think it's definitely at a turning point," he said of the town.

He, Danny Corrigan, who owns and operates Corrigan's Café, and other downtown business folks are putting their heads together to promote events such as Sept. 22's Art on Main Street. The street will be closed to traffic for arts and crafts vendors, food and entertainment, and they're hoping visitors will discover the downtown and the parking behind shops that line the street.

Corrigan opened his café on Main Street just more than a year ago.

"It's had its ups and downs, but I've had great support from business and the community," he said. "It's going very well now. I'm glad business improved so I can stay open. This is a great community."

When the time is right, Smith wants to renovate the old Town Cinema that drew folks downtown from the 1940s to the 1970s. Located at the back of his business, it burned in the 1970s, but its brick walls tell of former glory, and its stage and balcony remain. Smith is renovating its tray ceiling and at some point wants to open its old ticket booth, which sits behind the wall next to his office.

When downtown folks speak of its rebirth, they also mention Mack, whose family has deep roots in Fort Mill and resides in historic downtown homes. He owns a number of historic downtown business buildings and is in the process of renovating another home on Tom Hall Street.

His office is in a restored railroad car across the street from Town Hall and next to one of the parking lots he donated to the city. He's also the town attorney.

For Mack, downtown survival is not just about improving business, but preserving the town's history. His family operated hardware and other stores when the downtown was in its prime.

He owned the Tony's Pizza and florist shop that recently were burned out.

"I've seen that building burn twice," he said. "I hauled stuff out of it when I was 12."

Restoring the downtown has been "two steps forward and one step back," he said. He's commissioned architectural drawings for the former pizza and florist shop sites.

"My plan is to build a two-story or two-and-a-half stories with shops on the ground floor facing Main Street and the park," he said. "Commercial offices and residences would be over that."

Merriman referred to Charlotte as the "600-pound gorilla" in the town's backyard.

"What makes us unique is this is a family destination," he said. "How do we get cars off the road and capture them so neighborhood residents can walk, bike or roller-skate into town for neighborhood shopping? We're moving in the right direction."