With road trip scuttled, Rock Hill group makes most of Atlanta layover

A delegation from Rock Hill got a look at another city’s transportation network Monday, just not the city the delegates meant to.

The Rock Hill travelers were scheduled to meet with city leaders in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday for a full day’s schedule of events: riding the city’s streetcar hearing presentations from the Chamber of Commerce; and collecting information from the people in charge of transit and tourism in Arkansas’ capital.

Unfortunately, the airlines had other ideas, and four Rock Hillians ended up stranded in the Atlanta airport when they missed their flight.

But not ones to miss an opportunity, they decided to make the most of the trip, and got in touch with Atlanta’s public transit officials to learn about that city’s new streetcar instead.

“I feel like we’ve made lemonade out of lemons,” said Matt Dosch, a Comporium executive who joined the trip as part of the Knowledge Park Leadership Group.

As Rock Hill considers adding a downtown streetcar to its economic development plans, the leadership group has traveled to other cities to study how they put new public transportation options in place. Earlier this month, a Rock Hill delegation including the mayor and a majority of the City Council traveled to Ohio to learn about developments in Cleveland and Kent.

This time, a smaller group – including Dosch; David Lawrence, the city’s Knowledge Park development manager; Laura Ullrich, a Winthrop business professor; and Kevin Lagreca, an engineer with the firm HDR – had to find a way to get something out of the trip once it became apparent their Little Rock plans had changed.

“It would have been too late” to catch another flight, Lawrence said. “All our appointments would have been five hours off, which means they wouldn’t have happened, and if we just went home, that doesn’t get us anything.”

Instead, the group made some calls and “basically showed up on the doorstep” of Atlanta’s transportation office, Lawrence said, and talked their way into a presentation and a tour of the city’s streetcar system.

In operation since January, Atlanta’s streetcar moves in a 2.7-mile loop from its busy downtown and more under-served areas, taking in the Martin Luther King historic site, Centennial Olympic Park and Peachtree Street.

Even in the short time it’s been up and operating, Atlanta officials say they believe the cars are boosting economic activity.

“Anecdotally, there seem to be a lot of downtown office workers who take the streetcar to go to lunch,” Dosch said. Restaurants in the “warehousey part of town” report a 30 percent increase in business since the street cars were put in.

Atlanta wasn’t a perfect replacement for Little Rock, of course. The locals didn’t have much of a formal presentation planned, and their transportation network operates on a much larger scale.

“They go through 27 different intersections,” Lawrence said. “I think they still have some public relations work to do to retrain people to share the roads with a street car.”

Still, Lawrence said, the group got some good information on cost-cutting and how the city restructured its utilities along the route – an area in which Rock Hill can save money, since the Knowledge Park area still is largely undeveloped. Atlanta had to fit the streetcar onto existing streets.

And the group still hopes to reschedule the trip to Little Rock, where the city and its transportation network are more to scale with what Rock Hill is trying to do.

But for now, that will have to wait.

“I really feel like we were able to accomplish something,” Lawrence said, praising the Atlanta transit office for accommodating the party so well on such short notice.

“If I were on the receiving end of something like this, I don’t know that I could drop everything and take in people who showed up on the doorstep for a tour,” he said.

“They were really great to us.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062