York County agri-tourism effort hopes to kick off with Thursday meeting

It’s been several years since York County considered opening an agri-tourism center. But on Thursday, a group of residents will hold a public meeting to consider restarting the push for one.

The group will meet at 6 p.m. in the Farm Bureau office at 1735 Old York Road in York. Organizer Bobby Walker said he hopes the meeting will draw not only the expected constituency of farmers, the 4-H Club and the Extension Service, but also the “movers and shakers” who recognize the effect such a center could have on economic development in the county.

“I want to get people from Rock Hill, Baxter Village, Tega Cay, Fort Mill,” Walker said. “This will only fly if it’s a multi-use facility.”

A venue for agricultural events and other activities has long had support as a potential attraction for the county’s rural areas, but the proposal has been stranded on the question of how to fund such a facility.

The center envisioned by the group would feature equestrian events, a farmer’s market and livestock shows. It also would have space for concerts and other performances. But a dedicated agri-tourism center would primarily cater to the county’s agricultural community and those in surrounding counties.

“We have a lot of kids in our 4-H Club who do goat projects, they do work with cows, chickens, and right now they have to travel elsewhere to show them off,” said Ben Boyles, the community development agent for the York County Clemson Extension Service.

In 2008, the York County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau held a series of public meetings to discuss an agricultural center, and the county hired consultants to determine what such a center would look like and where it could go. But the proposal ultimately foundered on the question of funding. York County Councilman Michael Johnson remembers the planned center was projected to operate at “a million-dollar loss.”

“You would have to come up with a plan without using any recurring county funds,” Johnson said.

Since the last time agri-tourism was on the public’s agen+da, county officials have become weary of the idea.

“This is something that’s been talked about for, geez, about 10 years now,” said Britt Blackwell, chairman of the York County Council. Most recently the study committee examining the county’s facility needs considered the possibility, but Blackwell said a project like the one envisioned five years earlier couldn’t be included alongside all the county’s other building needs.

“At this time, that’s not a consideration at all,” he said, but he added an agricultural center would be a “great complement” to York County’s other attractions as long as it could function without county support.

Organizers hope to develop a feasible public-private partnership that could run and manage the agri-tourism center. Councilman Robert Winkler said he thinks some hospitality tax funding could go toward the project after it is conceived and planned separately.

“A few years ago, what they had planned was this grand, huge thing,” Winkler said. “I’d like to see it start small, and then maybe the county could get them some property. Maybe the Boy Scouts could do an Eagle Scout project to put up the first shed.”