Rock Hill mayor says the goal is for this city to be 'significant'

Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys State of the Community address

Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys delivered a State of the Community address in June 2018 through the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. Gettys talked restaurants, literacy, jobs and more.
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Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys delivered a State of the Community address in June 2018 through the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. Gettys talked restaurants, literacy, jobs and more.

It's not just the state of the community, it's where the community wants to be and how hard it's willing to work.

Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys addressed those issues and scores of people Tuesday morning at the Palmetto Room downtown, as part of his first State of the Community event since being elected mayor in November. The annual event was hosted by the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Here's what Gettys' said about Rock Hill, followed by context from his presentation:

"We're successful. I don't think that can be argued. What I hope we can become is significant."

Rock Hill is "now where we've wanted to be the last 30 years," Gettys said. The city has transitioned from a textile community to an information and business hub. He pointed to a technology incubator that helps start businesses. Later this month, the Knowledge Park Action Plan will be presented with ideas for action the city can accomplish in the next five years.

Gettys already has cooked up one idea, for more dining.

"How many here think we have enough great restaurants in Rock Hill? Raise your hand. Yeah. How many men have had babies? Yeah, same number, right?"

Rock Hill is the fifth largest city in South Carolina and has a major tourism economy. Gettys said Rock Hill can "grow our own restaurants." He said he's not worried about chains. He envisions something like the business incubator model, but for restaurants. Maybe a competition with three spots and one kitchen, a winner getting a short-term lease to build a following before opening a larger restaurant site.

"Why do we care whether the chains are (coming)?" Gettys said. "Let's create our own restaurants. How about a restaurant incubator?"

"It's booked. It will be booked every weekend for the rest of our lives."

That would be the indoor sports center that opens next spring in the Knowledge Park area. The site will have basketball, volleyball and cheerleading events. It also could have national cornhole tournaments, robotics events, "a lot of things that we don't do now," Gettys said. The center is already booked from a planned March opening through the end of next year. It should bring 3,000 to 5,000 new visitors to Rock Hill every weekend.

"It's the largest — save one in Atlanta. It's the largest indoor sports facility on the East Coast of the United States of America, not attached to a college," Gettys said.

"My hope is we'll be riding around on these buses during Come-See-Me."

Free, electric buses should be rolling around Rock Hill by next spring. The city found it would cost more to have someone keep up with fees than simply offer the service. There will be four routes, including a downtown loop and connections to Riverwalk, the Manchester area, the hospital and Saluda Street.

"We're not building a miracle field. We're building a Miracle Park."

Other places have a field. A space, Gettys said, where people with special needs can play ball with anyone else. Miracle Park in Rock Hill will have several baseball fields, multipurpose fields, a playground and eventually a business run by people with special needs. The project will transform Rock Hill's Winthrop Park area.

"My hope is we'll see our bigger employers lead in that regard. We have to be paying a living wage in this community. It's what will build the kind of community we want to build."

The mayor can't force anyone to pay a living wage, or earnings high enough to maintain a normal living standard. He'd like to see it. More conversation on the issue is expected in September.

It's one of several thoughts on employment, including ...

"I love McDonald's. You can tell by looking at me sometimes. But I don't want our kids working at McDonald's."

It isn't about the restaurant. It's about automation. If a decade from now drive-thru orders go to a call center in another state and robots are making and serving burgers, Gettys doesn't want workers left without jobs. It's happening in other industries, like with trash trucks now down to one driver and a robotic arm, different from teams of workers used years ago. Soon, the driver may not be needed, either, and "those jobs are gone," Gettys said.

"We'll have more people that are on fixed incomes and trying to make ends meet than we have that are coming into the workforce to try to earn and work and make our community."

Population projections show, for the first time in its history, Rock Hill will have more people age 65 and older than younger than age 18 by 2030, Getty said. York County will have 75,000 more people in 10 years.

"People don't come to South Carolina. People come to Myrtle Beach. People come to Greenville. People come to Rock Hill. They don't come to South Carolina. It's the cities that drive us, and it's the cities that'll save us."

Gettys said South Carolina is a wonderful place to live, but also one of the poorest states in the country. There are challenges to attracting new business and other growth, but also reasons why Rock Hill can excel.

"We're going to pop up our website and advertise to the investing world that if you come to Rock Hill, you get to sit in a room with maybe three people to make your decision. You've got three people in a room that can figure out how we get to yes."

Rock Hill has designated "opportunity zones," or federally set areas where investors can develop properties with delayed capital gains taxes or, should they sell during that delay, none at all. The treasury department is still working out details. Unlike areas with "competing factions," Gettys said, Rock Hill can put someone from the city (zoning, water, permitting) in a room with someone from the natural gas and internet companies to make deals happen quicker. That makes negotiations less complex.

The city also has enough development from recent years to show investors nationwide that Rock Hill is "not a lucky chance."

"Ten years ago we were begging for this stuff. Fifteen years ago we were laughed at for believing that downtown and Main Street could turn into a dining destination or a shopping place."

Apartments rose from downtown the past few years. The 139 Main project is full or almost full, while recently-opened The Anderson is more than half full. Downtown also has sites like Freedom Walkway, celebrating the city's path toward justice and equality. That path includes the lunch counter turned historical site downtown where civil rights protestors took a seat more than a half century ago.

"Our common history is strong," Gettys said. "There are elements of it that are good. There are elements of it that are bad. But all of it is ours."

"A significant community changes those numbers. A significant community has to change those numbers. Because if we don't, when we're overrun and everybody retires, and we have a lower population in the workforce than we do now. What do we do? This is survival."

Rock Hill Reads is a three-year effort to go into low-income areas and help children learn to read at least on grade level. A quarter of South Carolina's children live in poverty, Gettys said. In some parts of Rock Hill, the figure is three times as high, he said. He'd like to see the percentage of third-graders who can't read at grade level lower than the unemployment rate. But actual percentages aren't the goal.

"It really doesn't matter," Gettys said. "It doesn't matter what percentage of our kids can't read at grade level by the end of third grade. It matters that all of our kids read at grade level by the end of third grade."

"If we want to become that significant community, we have to work as if we deserve to be the winners, the significant community that we want to become."

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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