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Rock Hill on tour: City officials visit northeast Ohio to study downtowns

A shot of downtown Kent, Ohio. Officials from Rock Hill visited the city this week to hear about its successful downtown redevelopment in hopes of learning something that could transfer to the city’s own revitalization efforts.
A shot of downtown Kent, Ohio. Officials from Rock Hill visited the city this week to hear about its successful downtown redevelopment in hopes of learning something that could transfer to the city’s own revitalization efforts.

Rock Hill’s top city and business leaders had a long day Wednesday. They left City Hall at 6 in the morning and weren’t expected back until at least 16 hours later. In between, they got a close-up view of the urban infrastructure of northeastern Ohio.

Wednesday’s daylong excursion to the cities of Cleveland and Kent was part of an information-gathering exercise to learn how successful downtown redevelopment efforts, coupled with public transportation systems, have improved the image of a much-maligned area, and what lessons they might hold for Rock Hill.

“We’ve learned an awful lot,” said Andy Shene, chairman of the city’s Knowledge Park Leadership Group, after taking a tour of downtown Cleveland’s bus routes. “Cleveland is a whole lot more viable than I realized.”

Rock Hill officials chose to visit the Ohio city because its award-winning rapid transit bus system has been a key component of its downtown redevelopment efforts.

“They’ve made a $200 million investment in rebuilding everything: sidewalks, streets, the entire downtown,” said Rock Hill City Manager David Vehaun. “I think they said if you just count what they’ve put into the buses, it’s more like $40 million.”

The touring party hopes to apply lessons from the visit to ongoing efforts to attract new investment to downtown Rock Hill. City leaders have been studying ways to use a streetcar to connect the downtown business district with the Winthrop University area, as well as alternative means of transportation.

“Of course, we know Cleveland’s a much larger city than Rock Hill,” said Mayor Doug Echols. “We’re not going to come back and implement the whole thing, but if you dig into it a little, it provides a good bit of insight into how to do this.”

Cleveland’s rapid transit system covers an eight-mile range through the heart of downtown and into the campus of Case Western Reserve University. The buses are built so passengers board by stepping off platforms situated on islands in the middle of downtown streets rather than on the curb. Cleveland’s public transportation system, which also includes a trolley and light rail system, is partly funded through sponsorships.

Echols says Cleveland’s data show economic development has moved parallel with the city’s transportation system.

“They’re able to show the economic enterprise going on around the bus lines, and how the transportation system plays into that,” he said, although, admittedly, “it’s arguable which came first.”

After a morning presentation from Cleveland officials, the tour group traveled south to Kent to take in that city’s downtown redevelopment. The meeting between the group and Kent’s city manager was arranged by Dan Mahony, a dean at Kent State University who will take over the presidency of Winthrop University next month.

When he started at the Ohio school, Mahony says the relationship between the campus and the town wasn’t as collaborative, and “frankly, the downtown was not as appealing.” But in the time since, downtown Kent has been transformed, partly assisted by a hotel built and owned by Kent State’s university foundation.

“What they’ve done here is a good example of collaboration between the city and the university. That’s been very important to its success,” Mahony said. “The cities, of course, are different, but I hope to do the same thing with Winthrop and Rock Hill.”

Besides the Winthrop connection, “Kent has a downtown that is very similar to ours, and while we were here we wanted to check it out,” said Vehaun. “We hoped Dr. Mahony would still be there at the same time, and all the pieces came together.”

After a tour of downtown Kent and a stop for dinner, the Rock Hill group took off for home, perhaps with some ideas for future developments in the heart of Rock Hill.

“It’s one more step in covering all the bases,” Vehaun said.

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062

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