York County scoured the nation for help creating a rural masterpiece, a signature site to serve an entire region beyond the lifetimes of anyone living there now.
The advice? Look across the river.
York County bought 1,900 acres of land in a Catawba River in Rock Hill in December for $21 million. Project leaders have since said it will become something like the 2,100-acre Anne Springs Close Greenway, a privately owned Fort Mill nature preserve.
“This area can create that same long-term connectivity,” said York County Council Chairman Michael Johnson.
York County asked Greenways Inc. president Chuck Flink, who has greenway experience throughout the world, to help get its project off the ground. York County also brought on Dan Dodd, a Fort Mill-based landscape architect who started work with the Fort Mill greenway eight years ago.
“I think a lot of people think, well, you know the Close family they have a lot of money,” said Flink, who began working with Anne Close in 1991. “They can do anything they want. But I can assure you that every single decision that’s been made over 27 years on that project has been excruciating. They take everything into consideration.”
Experience in Fort Mill has the team of experts looking at lessons learned to create a regional destination.
“We’ll be happy to help,” Anne Close said. “It took us a long time to get the Greenway where it is today. We’ve had a lot of experience of what people want, what works.”
One initial challenge is Riverbend’s location.
“It seems remote,” Flink said. “It seems out of the way today, just like Anne Springs Close did 27 years ago. But you’re kind of in the eye of the storm.”
Urban growth now surrounds the Fort Mill greenway.
“First of all, 27 years ago Kingsley wasn’t there,” Flink said. “There was nothing there. So we were layering a 2,000-acre greenway in with this vision and one of the real struggles, honestly, that we had was the vision I was putting out there and the reality that was around them. People couldn’t understand. They couldn’t connect the two.”
Close and her team relied on national conservation experts, who likened the Fort Mill plan to Central Park in New York City. Fort Mill isn’t New York City, but Close does see a “green area in the middle of development.”
“For a long while the growth was slow,” she said. “In the last five or eight years, it has increased dramatically.”
David Hudspeth, interim county manager, spent many years as Fort Mill town manager. He is tackling questions at the Riverbend site on how much property to save and how to get people out to enjoy it.
“It’s going to probably need more than one access point,” he said. “Also you have to have some parking, bathrooms, that sort of thing if you’re going to have public access.”
He also wants to highlight what makes the property unique.
“We want to have some access to the river because that’s the prominent feature of this property,” Hudspeth said.
Flink recommends a market analysis for the property to find out what uses are best. The Fort Mill location has trails and lakes, as well as regular events, lessons, concerts and weddings.
“You can put an Earth Day event there and you can put thousands of people in one quadrant of it, and you can go to another side of that 2,000 acres and not know that a single person was on that landscape,” he said.
It’s a little odd, tackling development on a massive property where the idea is to keep it natural. That’s why experts say not to rush the master plan.
“It took us 15 years to put the Gateway center on the ground,” Flink said of the Fort Mill greenway’s new welcome center. “Fifteen years of thinking, and going through multiple different designs and layouts.”
Initial plans there were to use the dairy barn as a welcome center. Flink says now it’s clear turning it into an event site was best.
“For the first 10 years you could just kind of hang out, go to the greenway,” Dodd said. “It was like our back yard. They were starting to build trails.”
After a few years, volunteers started collecting parking fees.
“It really just grew into itself,” Dodd said.
The same could happen at Riverbend. Hudspeth is looking at security, existing structures and maintenance. Previous owners put in 6 miles of riverfront trail.
“If there are ever trails developed here, we’ve got a good foundation for that already,” Hudspeth said.
Close agrees with Riverbend planners a key step is putting the property under conservation easement. There are features Close recommends starting sooner, like a dog park, which opened four years ago.
“If I were doing a plan now, I would pick out a space for that early on,” she said.
Taking it slow also allows time to see how land uses work together. In Fort Mill, Close learned there were separate trails needed for horses, bikes and pedestrians.
“They don’t always mix too well,” Close said. “So we had to work out plans that accommodate everybody. They’ll know to do that from that beginning.”
Dodd’s early plan recommends a designated area to the south with restrooms, a trailhead and 40 parking spaces. Another area would include lake and river access.
“You’re going to come to a portion of this land and experience it for that day,” Dodd said, adding it may take five visits to see it all. “That creates continuous interaction.”
A castle house on the property could remain as an interesting structure to visit or become an office or event site.
“All the other big ideas can come at a later time,” Dodd said. “It’s just simply enjoying what we have.”
The key is finding the right uses.
“Perpetuity is a long time,” Dodd said. “This is a project of legacy. It has far-reaching implications on the growth of our communities for generations to come.”
Close said years ago, York County Forever tried to buy the Riverbend site for preservation but were outbid by a developer. Then, as now, Close saw tremendous potential.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Close said. “I think the county can do a wonderful job with it. It’s a great use of that land.”
Work in Fort Mill centers on maintaining that site, rather than preserving or growing it.
“This welcome center is really our last thing we’re planning to build,” Close said.
The popularity of the Fort Mill site brings its own set of challenges, experts say.
“Our challenges are going to be handling the numbers of people we’re having, and making sure we’re maintaining the resource,” Close said. “That has to come first.”
Dodd doesn’t see Riverbend competing with the popular Fort Mill greenway, but as another site for adventure.
“It’s a massive (place),” Dodd said. “It’s a big landscape. It’s pretty spectacular.”
Councilwoman Christi Cox compares Riverbend to the planned addition of Carolina Panthers headquarters and training facilities as changing the landscape in Rock Hill. While the Panthers are bringing in something new, Riverbend will preserve a piece of what makes the county special, she said.
“It truly is a special property,” Cox said. “It creates an identity for our county that sets us apart.”
This spring, the Fort Mill site celebrated its 25th Earth Day. The woman who started the site there loves the idea of something new growing from York County ground now. She knows how important it is to have something that will last.
“That’s the whole point of it,” Close said. “I tell people it’ll be here for as close to forever as we can get.”