Mills made communities in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. Now federal money could have those sites making something new again.
But first, it will take work.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will dole out $600,000 in the next three years to assess so-called "brownfield" sites in York, Chester, Lancaster and Union counties. It's the second time Catawba Regional Council of Governments received such a grant. In all, the EPA granted $54.3 million for projects nationwide, including seven in South Carolina and 11 in North Carolina.
"Our job is to assess the sites, determine the level of contamination, if any, and put together a cleanup plan and a cost estimate for as many sites as we can," said Robby Moody, regional council senior planner.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
A brownfield site is a place where past commercial or industrial use either contaminated a property or makes it likely an environmental study would find contamination. Common sites include abandoned factories, gas stations, oil storage sites, chemical manufacturers and landfills.
Old textile mills are a prime example.
"A lot of the mill properties in particular are surrounded by mill villages," Moody said. "They were set up by the mills maybe 100 years ago, and they've since been sold off into private ownership. The mills, once they close, become eyesores and blights on the community."
What once made mills sites viable — a large tract of land, access to water and transportation routes — also are attractive for redevelopment. It becomes a matter of how much cleanup will cost.
"Sometimes the thing you don't know creates the fear, the uncertainty," Moody said. "This is a way to shine light on that and quantify it."
The regional council is the statewide manager for the state health department's Brownfield Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund. Since taking on the role in 2005, more than $9 million has gone to 15 brownfield sites in South Carolina. One was the Bleachery site in Rock Hill, an old industrial site between White Street and the railroad tracks.
A textile plant operated there for almost 70 years before shutting down in 1998. The Bleachery, a common name for Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., at one point had 30 buildings and 2.5 million square feet of space. In its heyday, the site employed one of every four or five Rock Hill workers bleaching, dying, printing or finishing cloth.
In 2016, developers announced the 23-acre site would become University Center, a mix of student and senior housing projects, a hotel, restaurants, shops and office space. Rock Hill approved the $200 million master plan for the Knowledge Park site, with intent to apply for a $1.5 million loan from the revolving fund.
Another ongoing example of brownfield redevelopment is the former Good Motor Co. site in downtown Rock Hill. York County owned the 4.4-acre site, but couldn't sell it for redevelopment due largely to environmental concerns.
Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. entered a sales contract instead, allowing that group to work out environmental issues under a state incentive for new owners redeveloping brownfield sites. The plan is to have the property, after a clean bill of health, sold to a developer.
Moody said there isn't a standard time line for getting properties into redevelopment after cleanup.
"It's up to each individual site, and can depend on the owner, the complexity of the site, the willingness of the site owner and municipality," he said. "A great example is the Bleachery site. It's taken decades to get that one moving forward."
There are more than 450,000 brownfield sites nationwide.
A 2012 inventory focused on 20 mill sites in the four-county region served by the latest grant. Sites include the Bleachery and Arcade Mill in Rock Hill, American Thread in Clover, Lancaster Mill and Grace Bleachery in Lancaster. Three Republic mills in Great Falls and four Chester County mill sites made the list.
The recent grant came after two years of public meetings to identify potential sites. Six top priority sites include American Thread, one of the Republic mills, Kershaw Mill in Lancaster County and the Eureka Cotton Mill at the entrance to the city of Chester.
Secondary priority sites include the Bowling Green Spinning Mill, Cannon Mill and Coltex Mill, all in York County; Springsteen and two more Republic mills, all in Chester County; and the Lancaster Mill in Lancaster County.
The regional council isn't the only group that can apply for federal brownfield funding. Rock Hill applies once a year. The city has "a few areas" that may be candidates for the funds, said assistant project manager Corinne Sferrazza.
"As long as we have a viable option, we'll look to apply," she said.
Like others in the region, Sferrazza points to the Bleachery site as what can happen if environmental factors are known and addressed.
"That helped to clean up a lot of the environmental concerns that are there," she said. "It's a prime location for us, and it's been sitting there for a long time."
Because suspected environmental concerns are enough to put a site on the brownfields list, many community residents and municipalities can pick out sites as well. Old gas stations, manufacturing plants and the like are funding options. Mills just happen to be the larger sites, often surrounded by older homes built for mill workers, on land primed for redevelopment.
Initial environmental assessments are key, Moody said, in creating a clear picture of what it will cost to clean a site. Developers can work that figure into their models, he said, to find out on the front end if a site is viable for their plans.
When they were leading the regional economy, mills often defined their communities and brought people together. That's something the former mill properties could do again, if given new life.
"I know these funds will be used to assist communities that continue to deal with the aftermath of mill and plant closures," said James Neal, regional council chairman and former state representative. "Former industrial and commercial sites that can be assessed, cleaned up and redeveloped will help people and local governments across our entire region."
Mill sites tabbed for funding
The following South Carolina communities received EPA funding for 2018:
Catawba Regional Council of Governments: $600,000
Pelzer Heritage Commission: $200,000
The following North Carolina communities received EPA funding for 2018:
Columbus County: $300,000
Piedmont Triad Regional Council: $600,000
Siler City: $300,000
Spring Hope: $300,000