10 local issues likely to make headlines in 2014

December 31, 2013 

Downtown plans gaining steam

Rock Hill in late 2014 will likely celebrate the opening of a $6 million “Fountain Park” in the city’s downtown, featuring open recreational space, an informal performance area and public art designed by local students.

Comporium Communications will pay for a fountain in the park and a new four-story office building nearby, on the corner of East Main Street and Elizabeth Lane. The city of Rock Hill is spending $3 million on a parking garage attached to Comporium’s office building, both of which are expected to be finished by August.

The development – dubbed “Downtown East” – will serve as a catalyst, city leaders hope, to attracting more businesses and visitors to Rock Hill’s downtown area. For nearly a decade, Rock Hill officials have looked to revitalize Main Street and adjoining roads to create a place where people want to shop, eat and socialize.

Businesses had mixed success in Rock Hill’s downtown in 2013.

Erin’s Restaurant recently announced plans to close after a 1.5-year run on Caldwell Street; the Citizen’s Corner restaurant closed after nearly six years in business; and the Old Town Bistro shut its doors in the spring.

But downtown recently greeted two new restaurants: Amelie’s, a French bakery from Charlotte, opened in the old Citizen’s Corner building; and Five & Dine, a breakfast, lunch and dinner spot, opened in the former Old Town Bistro location on Main Street.

One of downtown’s newest restaurants, Millstone Pizza and Taphouse, will celebrate its first year in business this spring. The pizza restaurant, also popular for its large selection of craft beers, opened in the city’s new Old Town Market area on Caldwell Street.The market hosts Rock Hill’s seasonal farmer’s markets and features event space and storefronts available for rent. Synergy Yoga & Wellness opened there in April 2013.

The city also celebrated in September the opening of Span Enterprises, a software company with about a dozen employees.

While Rock Hill is poised for more commercial growth in downtown this year, city leaders will likely still look for ways to attract more apartment-style housing. One such plan for the old Woolworth building location on Main Street was shelved last year after the project developer said construction costs and loan interest rates were too high.

‘Knowledge Park’ gets start

A master plan for Rock Hill’s “Knowledge Park” will be unveiled by February 2014 – less than six months after city officials chose a private development-construction firm to oversee the project.

Sora-Phelps, the master developer, is expected to start first with the old Lowenstein textile building on White Street as the company seeks to transform most of Rock Hill’s former textile area between downtown and Winthrop University.

The old Lowenstein building – now owned by the city – was built in 1929, during Rock Hill’s textile industry boom. It could soon be home to various office, civic and some retail uses under Sora-Phelps’ vision.

For years, city officials have used tax dollars to prime the old textile corridor for new development. A major part of the taxpayer-funded upgrades is road work being done along West White Street, where contractors are burying utility lines, adding sidewalks and widening the road.

Rock Hill City Council’s signing on with Sora-Phelps in September signified a commitment of hundreds of millions of private dollars to be invested in Knowledge Park.

In addition to the Lowenstein building, developers will be eying the land where the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. plant – commonly called the Bleachery – once operated. The 23-acre site is also city-owned.

Sora-Phelps representatives say there’s already substantial commercial and investment interest in the Knowledge Park area, which includes more than 100 acres.

More oversight of improvements

With a new county manager, York County government is poised to take a closer look at a long list of capital improvement projects such as the ongoing courthouse renovation, a potential expansion of the justice center, and Pennies for Progress road projects.

Manager Bill Shanahan, who started in September, asked the council to consider hiring an analyst or consultant to better manage projects and avoid costly overruns. He also cautioned the council against letting staff members take on more than they can manage by prioritizing capital needs and conducting a comprehensive inventory of the county’s current facilities.

The $6 million courthouse renovation in York is in full swing after a decade of delays. But it is still years away from completion and will not address the county’s overall demand for courtrooms. The council must mull over a plan to address the expanding court system, which includes scattered court buildings and document storage sites countywide

Another potential item the council may consider in 2014 council is an expansion of Moss Justice Center. Talk of constructing an additional booking facility in eastern York County came up in 2006 and resurfaced last May.

An in-depth analysis of the county’s Pennies for Progress program, which uses a 1-cent sales tax to fund voter-approved road construction, was also on a list of recommendations Shanahan recently delivered to council. The program has seen several cost overruns, including a half-mile road in Tega Cay with a $7.4 million price tag, and a 55 percent increase on a Rock Hill road that amounted to $3.2 million in additional funding.

The county’s engineering staff is also looking into whether the program’s funds can be legally used for road maintenance, which has increasingly become an issue on deteriorating state-owned roads.

The county as a whole will be getting back the results of its first independent audit by an accounting firm at the start of the new year. The audit will provide an exhaustive look into a random sample of some of the county’s ongoing capital projects.

An overhaul of the county hospitality tax

A reorganization of York County’s hospitality tax and its tourism arm is long overdue, according to councilman Michael Johnson, who has been pitching his vision of sports-themed tourism as a way to bolster the local economy.

The county’s hospitality tax, which is levied most heavily on unincorporated areas like Lake Wylie, has become a flashpoint for those on council looking to dig into the pool of funds for local projects such as ball fields.

Johnson, who represents the Fort Mill-Tega Cay area, has supported building sports fields similar to those in Myrtle Beach, which would draw national competitions and other large-scale sporting events. He’s called on the council to hammer out a long-term view of what county tourism should look like and how hospitality tax dollars can achieve that goal.

Much of the county’s hospitality taxes have gone to its tourism bureau and museum system, sparking debate over whether taxes would be better spent on “tangible” projects such as parks.

The county has long done without a parks department of its own, which may change if the council decides to pursue large-scale sports tourism.

Disputed museum land in Fort Mill to be sold

By the middle of this year, the ongoing legal dispute between York County and the foundation that once supported its museums could get more complicated.

The Culture and Heritage Foundation hopes to sell the 274 acres of donated land that’s at the center of the dispute. Charlotte-based Crescent Communities wants to buy the land and combine it with another 280 acres it already owns to form new housing and commercial development along the Catawba River, near Interstate 77 on Sutton Road in Fort Mill.

York County is suing the foundation over rights to the land, which was part of a donation in 1997 from Jane Spratt McColl and her family.

So far, the county has spent about $90,000 in its legal fight. It filed suit in June 2013. County Council members said then that the lawsuit could cost taxpayers up to $250,000.

This year, York County will continue to try to stop the foundation from using proceeds from the land for any purposes other than supporting public museums.

The county and the foundation’s attorneys could seek to resolve the conflict through mediation or court-ordered alternative dispute resolution. Or, the county could try again to have a judge issue a temporary injunction to stop the sale of the McColl land, which is expected to be finalized in mid-2014.

Decision on new hospital in Fort Mill

The nearly decade-long saga for the right to build a Fort Mill hospital currently rests on a decision by the state’s Administrative Law Court, which is slated to rule in early 2014.

The right to build a medical facility in the booming community has yo-yoed between Piedmont Medical Center, which operates the county’s only hospital and primary ambulance service, and Carolinas HealthCare System, which operates Carolinas Medical Center.

PMC is appealing a 2011 decision by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control that last granted the rights to CHS. The hospital system plans to build a $77.5-million, 64-bed hospital near Interstate 77 on Sutton Road. PMC has proposed a $100 million, 100-bed facility at the corner of S.C. 160 and U.S. 21.

The law court’s decision hinges on whether a CHS-operated hospital in the county would adversely affect PMC, which has long operated as the county’s sole medical facility.

Winthrop football: Will they, won’t they?

Winthrop University’s new president renewed debate last year over whether the school should add a football team, saying she’s open to the idea and willing to study it.

This year, she hopes, the university could have an answer about football.

President Jayne Marie Comstock’s pledge to fully vet the football question could fulfill the hopes of many in Rock Hill who want a Winthrop Eagles squad to join the pigskin fervor that’s earned the city “the best little football town in America” moniker.

Still, there are others who say Winthrop shouldn’t complicate its current reputation: offering nationally-accredited academic programs to a diverse student body and supporting its Division 1 athletes who consistently post some of the school’s highest GPA’s.

Comstock is not advocating for or against a football team. Her stance has been that she wants to carefully weigh the pros and cons of adding the sport. If stakeholders think it would benefit Winthrop, she said, it would be her duty to raise money for the new program.

Comstock tackles big goals at Winthrop

Jayne Comstock, who is nearly the six-month mark as Winthrop president, will work toward some lofty goals she set.

She’s looking to make college more affordable, increasing Winthrop’s enrollment and boosting its freshman retention rate.

In helping guide Winthrop over its higher education hurdles, Comstock has had to clear a few herself on campus.

Just before Comstock was hired last February, four faculty members spoke out against her candidacy. Their concerns stemmed mostly from a 2009 libel lawsuit filed by Butler University – her former employer – against an anonymous, critical blogger who turned out to be a Butler student. Some professors also expressed concern over the strength of the faculty’s voice during campus decision-making.

Once in office in July, Comstock acted swiftly to include professors in policy. Professors gave positive reviews after she held a series of town hall-style meetings to consult with faculty and staff members on major university initiatives.

Recently, she advocated on the faculty’s behalf in hopes that the Winthrop Board of Trustees members will reinstate an appeals power that will give professors more leverage and peace of mind on campus. Comstock has also been instrumental in helping Winthrop’s non-teaching employees start to organize into a staff assembly.

In March, Winthrop will celebrate its new era under Comstock during a week-long inauguration.

Rock Hill to hire new superintendent

The Rock Hill School District is moving forward with its search for a new superintendent, though for the time being, most of the responsibility for that search falls on Coleman Lew and Associates, a Charlotte-based executive search firm.

The board voted to hire the firm in September for $55,000 plus expenses. Board members said they didn’t have the time or the expertise to find the most qualified candidate.

The job posting, written by Coleman Lew and approved by the board, includes requirements like “visionary leader who exhibits innovative thinking” and “exhibits a love for educating young people and enthusiasm for all phases of school administration.”

Former superintendent Lynn Moody left the district in August to become superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina. When she was appointed in 2006, she was the first female superintendent in the district’s history. John Taylor, former superintendent of the Lancaster County School District, has been serving as interim superintendent since August.

Clowney looks to move to the NFL

Rock Hill native and South Pointe High School graduate Jadeveon Clowney will likely leave the University of South Carolina after three years to move on to the NFL.

Clowney has been a national celebrity since he was named the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit in 2010. He became even more famous a year ago today after after his oft-replayed tackle of a Michigan running back in the Outback Bowl.

Most pro football still predict Clowney will be among the first 10 players picked in the NFL draft; maybe one of the top five players.

If Clowney is picked in the first round, he would be the third consecutive first-round pick from Rock Hill, following Northwestern’s Corrdarelle Patterson (Vikings) in 2013 and South Pointe’s Stephon Gilmore (Bills) in 2012.

Compiled by Anna Douglas, Jie Jenny Zou, and Rachel Southmayd.

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