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Some fear area is gateway to crime

FORT MILL -- Last week, the focus of businesses in the commercial stretch around Interstate 77's Exit 90 and the intersection of U.S. 21 and S.C. 51 was trash on the roadside and calls to the police for help with brutal traffic over gas lines.

But the Wednesday evening shooting death of a clerk at Anyday Payday Loans means that concerns over aesthetics and inconvenience have changed to greater concerns over safety.

Business people are anxious over this most recent brutality in this area -- sometimes called "York County's Gateway" -- that is so close to Charlotte. Some say until this first glimpse of South Carolina ceases to be a magnet of businesses that are easy targets of crime, the area can't improve.

"This kind of stuff is going to happen until these kind of businesses go away," said Jack Sheppard, owner of Aim Right gun store on U.S. 21 near the site where the clerk was killed. Sheppard said he and other businesses have repeatedly voiced concerns to law enforcement and politicians over the area Sheppard describes as "plain not good."

S.C. Rep. Carl Gullick, R-Lake Wylie, who has dealt with pleas for help there for years as a member of the York County Council, said he has heard people call the area "Malfunction Junction." A visible police presence is crucial to safety, Gullick said.

Yvonne Clark, president of Narroway Productions, a Christian theater company that has offices adjacent to the building where the clerk was killed, called the killing "scary."

"Time and time again, we have talked about what to do about safety," Clark said of meetings with area business people where cleanup was the main topic but crime always popped up.

Before 2000, the area was video poker central, dubbed "Fort Vegas." The problem was appearance and crime. For example, when a huge entertainment company would consider building on the old Heritage USA site nearby in the late 1990s only if Carowinds Boulevard and U.S. 21 were cleaned up, nothing changed, and the company never came. A political stink was finally raised over poker, and poker was outlawed. But then, lottery retailers came to the same stretch of roads in bunches. And now with payday lenders virtually outlawed in North Carolina, the area has payday lending and check cashing thrown in the mix.

Crime remains a problem. The area had the most calls for service of any York County Sheriff's Office zone in 2007, according to department data. Just a month ago, a fast-food restaurant was held up at gunpoint at 9:30 a.m. during the breakfast rush. Earlier this year, the gas station across the street from the restaurant was robbed twice in one week.

The topper to all this is that Wednesday's killing happened during the afternoon rush-hour drive home just a few feet from one York County's busiest stretches of road.

Some strides have been made to deter crime. In just the past few years, the police presence has greatly increased. A sheriff's office substation with four deputies per shift based there was opened down U.S. 21 just south of Gold Hill Road. A private security firm patrols nearby residential areas and some businesses on U.S. 21. Randy Salter, owner of Carolina Boats across the street from where the killing occurred, said the area is generally safer than when he arrived eight years ago. When he first opened, Salter said, he routinely suffered vandalism and theft. Now, a more visible police presence buttressed with private security has made his business safer.

"This stuff happens every day in Charlotte, and these guys are going to go somewhere and do their robbing and thieving and killing," Salter said. "It's everywhere."

The problem, Salter said, is closeness to Charlotte. And that is not going to change no matter what kind of businesses operate nearby.

Daniel Austin, owner of an insulation/siding company right across the street on S.C. 51 from where the killing happened, said he is "deeply disturbed," and he is open to some kind of "crime coalition" of area businesses. Austin said he has a huge investment of materials and vehicles, so his business has security fencing, gates, cameras and "my place is lit up like a runway."

Sheppard, the gun store owner, said he's prepared not for if his business gets robbed, but when. He used these words: "I'll help you if I can, but I'll kill you if I must."

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