‘High stakes real estate’: How a Rock Hill environmental headache could turn green.

The former Good Motor Company site is eyed for redevelopment, thanks to a pending agreement between York County and the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation.
The former Good Motor Company site is eyed for redevelopment, thanks to a pending agreement between York County and the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation. John Marks

York County has a property with environmental problems it can’t unload. Rock Hill economic leaders want new business, but don’t own the land.

Both sides are ready to deal.

An agreement is nearing between the county and Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation on the former Good Motor Company site downtown. The economic group would go under contract on the 4.4-acre property at Dave Lyle Boulevard, East White Street and Oakland Avenue without any long-term plans to own it. Ideally, the group never would own it at all.

The property, used decades for various automotive work, is a brownfield site, meaning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists it in the category of “a property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.”

There are more than 450,000 brownfield sites nationwide.

Because it’s at least plausible there are environmental problems on site, York County hasn’t been able to close on any of the “several inquiries” it has received about redevelopment. The county bought the site for $1.76 million in 2009. The plan was to put a library there, but plans changed.

“The cleanup part was probably a deal-breaker,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, whose district includes the downtown area.

The site is most of a city block. There are three smaller properties on the same block, but the county site is large enough to require a significant investment for anyone looking to redevelop. A matter complicated by environmental problems.

“It would be a tremendous burden on anybody looking to redevelop that site to come in and clean it up on their own dime,” Roddey said.

The state has a program for brownfield sites. Someone looking to buy one can spend money to investigate what environmental issues there are, then the state can work with them to determine how much cleanup needs to be done. An area that may have chemicals in the ground may, for instance, remain undisturbed as long as it remains under a parking lot.

In that scenario, covenants may keep that parking lot in place, giving the site a clean bill of health as long as the state requirements are met and remain in place.

Landowners don’t qualify for the state program. It only applies to someone looking to buy such a site.

“York County is not eligible to participate,” said Stephen Turner, director of the economic development group.

It would have to go through the process of contracting with a prospective new owner and leave it to the other party, in this case the economic development group, to apply for the program.

“That is a necessary step,” Turner said.

By claiming “contractual interest,” the economic group can work with the state to get the site redevelopment-ready. The state gives three years for the contract to be finalized. Turner said his group would look at having it ready for a developer within six or eight months, and could turn over the contract without ever actually owning the land.

“Then this becomes a full-on redevelopment site,” Turner said.

Agreements would make sure the county reimburses the economic development group for its environmental work. The county would then maintain considerable control over a final sale to whatever group may build on the property.

“We still ultimately will have control and say as far as asking price, and terms of sale,” Roddey said. “In order for us to qualify for cleanup, a third party has to happen.”

Similar agreements were reached for major redevelopments in the city like the Bleachery and Cotton Factory. Leaders expect the Good Motor property to draw considerable interest, too.

“Beginning from the earliest days of Rock Hill’s history, there has been economic development on that site,” Turner said.

It was a train depot and a variety of other businesses, but for maybe seven decades had automotive uses. Which contributed to the environmental issues but also prove it has business potential. By partnering with the county, Turner said, his group is able to work closer with and bring expertise to whatever developer emerges.

“It is not what their economic development folks do,” Turner said. “It’s what we do.”

Neither group knows if the site will be residential, restaurant space, commercial, or something else. Turner said as an extension of the growing downtown area, all options are there. Because his group isn’t on the hook for costs it can’t recoup, he sees no reason to shy from the agreement.

“I don’t know that there’s a worst that could happen,” Turner said.

The county passed the first of three votes needed to make the deal happen on Monday night. On Tuesday afternoon, Turner presented the plan to his board. A price for the property hasn’t been determined. Turner expects a full deal to vote on perhaps by April.

Then the groups can get down to redefining downtown Rock Hill, again.

“Once we get it cleaned up, it’s definitely a prime piece and we'll probably be able to name our price,” Roddey said. “With all the sports complex and all that the city is developing, it’s definitely high stakes real estate.”