Will AME Zion center transform Rock Hill's Saluda Street?

For decades a shopping center defined Rock Hill’s Saluda Street.

When it opened in the 1960s with a Winn-Dixie grocery store, a dry cleaners and other merchants it was a point of pride for neighbors.

By the 1970s, the Saluda Street shopping center faced the same problem that beset downtown Rock Hill and other urban areas. The name merchants left. A flea market replaced the grocery.

In time, the shopping center closed. For years, the vacant, decaying property was an eyesore. City leaders considered buying the shopping center and tearing it down.

This week, life returns to the property as the South Atlantic District of the AME Zion Church dedicates its new “transformation center.”

Bishop George Battle, the senior bishop of the AME Zion Church and Clinton College alum, is the featured speaker for the dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Bishop Kenneth Monroe of the South Atlantic District, which serves South Carolina and Georgia, also will speak.

“This is what God has called us to do,” Monroe said Friday. “Help people turn around and be change agents.”

Monroe said God shared the vision for the former shopping center with him four years ago. Along the way, he and district leaders faced a series of challenges, from buying the property, examining the building’s soundness for renovations, environmental cleanups and listening to a stream of naysayers.

“This is a faith journey,” Monroe said. “As long as God is behind us, this will keep going.”

And with a smile and a slight laugh, Monroe said, “The devil has been in the details.”

It has been Monroe’s ability to deal with the details that has kept the project going, said district leaders.

Without Monroe’s skills as administrator, fundraiser, educator and spiritual leader, the idea for the center would have died, said the Rev. Reid White Jr., elder for the church’s Spartanburg District, which spans from Spartanburg to Charleston.

The Saluda Street property has been completely renovated and expanded. There is an 800-seat sanctuary, several smaller conference rooms and numerous offices.

How the center will be used continues to evolve, Monroe said.

“There are all kinds of possibilities,” he said.

Having Armory Park adjacent to the property is a “wonderful thing,” Monroe said.

Certain to be part of the center’s calendar are three annual district meetings which draw members from the district’s 160 churches in South Carolina and Georgia.

Monroe said it was important to make the physical improvements. They show the Saluda Street area that it is “no longer forsaken or forgotten,” he said.

Ann Williamson, who represents the area on Rock Hill’s City Council, and Melvin Poole, president of the Rock Hill NAACP, said the center is the “greatest thing to happen to Saluda Street in the last 30 to 40 years.”

It is, Poole said, “the brightest shining star for the area.”

Williamson said residents along Saluda Street are excited about the center and other neighborhood improvements. “There is now life” at the former shopping center, and “I am in awe,” Williamson said.

Pete Demas is president of the Saluda Corridor Association and owner of Chix restaurant across from the center.

“Saluda is alive, it’s back,” he said.

Demas opened Chix a week ago and has seen a constant stream of business.

“Saluda Street is changing,” he said, noting the construction of a Wal-Mart store at the south end and the new Fountain Park at the north end.

He said that there is no question that the new church center will bring more people and potential customers, and likely more businesses, to Saluda Street.

“This is a new lease on life for Saluda Street,” he said.

And on Saturday, that lease will be celebrated with unrestrained joy, said the Rev. White.

“It will be a praise celebration,” White said, predicting that voices raised in song inside the sanctuary should be easily heard outside the center.