Wheels turning on track for cyclists

Rock Hill's meandering journey toward a bicycle race track took a new turn when Charlotte banker Hugh McColl went public with his support for the project.

McColl, the retired Bank of America chief, told city leaders that a velodrome would attract the world's top cyclists to Rock Hill and become a destination for athletes and fans alike.

"A velodrome will serve as a hub for cycling in the Carolinas and the Southeast," McColl wrote in a letter last week to the City Council. "... As Rock Hill continues to establish itself as a sports tourism destination, I urge you and your colleagues to strongly consider and support this unique opportunity."

So, why would McColl take an interest in a bicycle track in Rock Hill? Turns out McColl is an avid outdoorsman with plenty of time and money to support pet causes. He's involved with the Charlotte-based cycling club trying to turn the idea into reality.

After more than three years of on-and-off deliberations, city officials say they will make a decision in August.

"The wheels turn slowly," said Kim Deacon of the Rock Hill Bicycle Club. "(But) those guys really want to have it happen. The whole thing is more concrete now, it's not just talk."

Group eyes old Celanese site

Organizers are targeting a location at the old Celanese plant off Cherry Road near the Catawba River, where plans for a massive redevelopment called Riverwalk would bring shops, homes and a business park.

The developers have agreed to set aside land for free, saying the outdoor track would fit nicely with their plans for ball fields and walking trails. If approved, the track would be built around 2010 or 2011.

Still at issue is whether tax dollars ought to be spent. The $4 million construction cost would mostly come from hospitality taxes and grants controlled by City Hall. A group of cycling buffs on the Carolina Velodrome Association pledged $500,000 to go along with the donated land, valued at $600,000.

McColl is an adviser to the association, as is Humpy Wheeler, who recently retired as president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

"They've had a lot of experience with how to get things done in the world," said velodrome organizer Mike Cowan. "Having their support can be very helpful. Obviously, their names lend a certain credibility to the project."

The center would host national-caliber events such as Olympic time trials and USA Cycling races at least three times a year, backers say.

Before they make any commitments, city officials want guarantees that the center also would serve local folks by offering riding classes for youngsters, field trips for school groups and similar activities.

"We can't build a facility just for national cycling races," Mayor Doug Echols said. "If we're going to put public dollars in it, then it has to have multiple uses. We need to think in terms of maximizing the investment year-round."

A study done by Clemson University's tourism institute found the track would generate $4.4 million in annual economic impact for Rock Hill. That's because competitors would spend money on hotels, restaurants and entertainment when they come to town for events.