The row of elected officials and local dignitaries standing on a loading dock in downtown Rock Hill laid out a bold vision for the empty buildings looming behind them.
They spoke of shops, restaurants, corporate offices and townhouses bringing new life to the Textile Corridor -- the complex of mills that once formed the backbone of the city's economy.
Five years and $1.5 million in public money later, little progress can be seen at the 250-acre site across from downtown.
"The jury's still out right now," City Councilman John Gettys said last week. "The Cotton Factory is a huge success, but until we get some progress on the rest of that corridor ... it's still an unfinished project.
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"Everybody's frustrated. The city's frustrated. The property owners out there are frustrated. We all want to see this thing happen."
In the years since a plan for reviving the Textile Corridor took shape, progress has been slowed by a series of unproductive strategies and unforeseen delays.
Few who attended a kickoff event on a cold winter morning in 2003 could have imagined the difficult road that lay ahead. On that day, one speaker conveyed a sense of optimism harder to find today.
"It will be exciting for the people in Rock Hill to see this happen," said Ray Koterba, then chairman of a committee leading the charge. "And it's about to happen."
Setbacks bring frustration
Tax dollars devoted to the project are not yet delivering their intended rewards. Since 2001, $1.5 million in public money has been spent on a dozen studies aimed at jump-starting private investment, according to records obtained by The Herald through a Freedom of Information request. The money is a combination of local and federal dollars that the city pulled together.
Some of the studies commissioned in the past five years are either tabled or incomplete:
• In 2003, the city paid $452,000 to Hunter Interests, a Maryland consulting group, to develop a master plan outlining an overall scheme for redevelopment. After the study was completed, city leaders shifted to a new strategy that called for dividing the corridor into five separate zones, each to be developed on its own schedule.
• In 2005, the city paid $28,000 to Hunter Interests to provide "implementation advice" on hiring a master developer to oversee design and construction. The master developer concept later was dropped in favor of the zone strategy.
• This year, the city spent $389,807 on an ongoing study to explore the prospect of running a trolley on existing railroad tracks between downtown and Piedmont Medical Center. Around the same time, a separate study began on rubber-wheeled tourist trolleys that drive on roads, an option considered cheaper and more realistic.
Other studies examined environmental issues and the project's feasibility.
Momentum from project?
In defending the studies, city officials say the master plan prepared by Hunter Interests provided a lasting framework still guiding the process. They also say the trolley ideas hold potential.
The studies put the Textile Corridor in position to succeed, but only when developers step up to apply them, said Ernie Bleinberger, the Hunter consultant who oversaw the master plan.
"The private parties, they've got to get in the game and participate at the same level," said Bleinberger, who has since left Hunter Interests to start his own company. "There doesn't seem to be much motion on the part of the key property owners one way or another that I've seen."
City Manager Carey Smith said all sides remain committed. But he acknowledged it might take time for supporters to adjust their expectations.
The sputtering national economy, coupled with rising construction costs, makes it difficult to put the studies into action, he said.
"Maybe more than anyone, I would like to see us be further along," Smith said. "I still believe the vision that was outlined will be accomplished. It just may not be exactly on the timetable that we would prefer."
The corridor's greatest success story is the Cotton Factory, where a $12 million renovation transformed an empty building into a headquarters for the Williams & Fudge college loan collection agency.
Company co-owner Gary Williams said his project would have been impossible without advance work done by the city. Various studies provided a roadmap for how to remove asbestos and other materials, and then approach rehabilitation work.
"All those little factors made us decide it was worth investing," Williams said.
Waiting on the Bleachery
Economic development boosters hoped the Cotton Factory momentum would carry over to the former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. complex, commonly known as the Bleachery, the biggest piece of the corridor at 1 million square feet. It hasn't happened yet.
Chief owner Lynn Stephenson hopes to begin tearing down portions of the site by December. Getting to that point has required heaps of environmental studies and financial projections.
The city will pay for demolition, slated to cost well more than $2 million, though exact figures are still being tallied. Stephenson and other investors bought the complex for $600,000 in 2003.
After demolition, work can begin on a planned active adult community with homes for retirees 55 and older. The homes would be surrounded by public parks, an outdoor performance stage and other amenities. The hope is to start construction in 2010.
Until then, Stephenson's outlook offers a fitting sentiment for the broader hopes at the Textile Corridor.
"I'm hoping and praying we're at the end of our laundry list," she said. "There are times I think we take 10 steps forward and four steps back. We keep working at it.
"When it's all said and done, I'm going to look back and say, 'Yeah, you needed to do what you did.'"
As the neighboring Textile Corridor awaits rebirth, Winthrop University is pressing ahead with its own construction projects.
An estimated $85 million in new campus facilities are finished or under way in the corridor, most of them designed to meet the city's goals for linking the campus to downtown.
"Having a 'college town' environment around the campus is Winthrop's top priority now," said college president Anthony DiGiorgio. "We continue to be hopeful for the kind of development that complements our own."
Among the pieces of Winthrop's so-called "heart of campus" on the western side:
• The West Center for wellness and physical education, where students can use athletic courts, a climbing wall, swimming pool and classrooms. It opened last year.
• The DiGiorgio campus center, which will house the campus bookstore, a 225-seat movie theater, student activity spaces, a food court, banquet rooms, an outdoor plaza, a conference area and a "smart wall" with updated campus events. The center is under construction.
One of the biggest projects remains stalled. The school has asked the state for $45 million for a new library, but legislators haven't committed money.
If the state money comes through, Winthrop's investment in the Textile Corridor would be almost $130 million since 2002, school officials say.
It is a collection of old textile mills in a wedge-shaped area of 250 acres between Dave Lyle Boulevard and Cherry Road near downtown.
Plans call for a mix of housing, public parks, shops, restaurants and offices that would generate millions of dollars in revenue and lure thousands of visitors. It could take 10 years to complete.
Money spent in the Textile Corridor comes from the city and York County as well as from federal grants and earmarks.
In total, roughly $40 million in tax dollars is available through a special "tax increment finance" district known as a TIF. Money will pay for improvements such as new streets, sidewalks, landscaping and parking. An agreement between the city, county and school board created the TIF.