Bleachery developer outlines makeover plans, dreams

When Timothy Elliott first used Google Earth to see images of the Rock Hill Finishing & Printing plant, all he saw were large, dark blobs.

When he zoomed in, he saw a site ravaged by fire.

He wondered whether his employer, Sora Development, should undertake the task of developing the site. Demolishing the buildings and carting off the rubble would be expensive.

But as he learned more about Rock Hill’s “Knowledge Park” vision for the site and other downtown land, he was encouraged. He learned the city had stable political leadership and that business leaders were solidly behind the project, he said. He learned a university – Winthrop – wanted to connect with its community rather than shroud  itself behind brick walls and iron gates.

And he learned those in city hall had done their homework, armed not only with a vision but with their sights set on bringing businesses and jobs to downtown Rock Hill.

When Elliott came to town and got a tour, he continued to be impressed. Rock Hill has “the Main Street that everyone wants to have,” Elliott said.

The city’s sports tourist efforts were among the best he had seen, he said. “Who else has a velodrome?” he asked.

Most importantly, the city owned the 23-acre Rock Hill Finishing & Printing plant site, commonly called the Bleachery.

But Elliott still was nervous until he finally went to the Bleachery. What he saw was nothing like the photos. The city had demolished all remnants of the July 2009 fire, spending $5 million to knock it down and take it away.

“There was nothing there except for the standing buildings. It was nothing like the photographs,” Elliott said Friday.

The view helped convince Elliott that Knowledge Park was the kind of project Sora Development excels at – taking a tired urban setting and redeveloping it with public-private partnerships.

In September, the Knowledge Park leadership committee agreed that Sora and its partner, developer Henzel Phelps, was the combination to turn the vision into reality. The leadership committee is made of business leaders; the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. and the Rock Hill City Council endorsed their selection.

On Friday, Elliott made his first official appearance before the public at the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp.’s annual planning retreat, presenting his company’s credentials to about 100 community leaders.

Before he even spoke, Elliott received encouraging words from previous presenters.

Lonnie Emard, founder of the nonprofit group IT-oLogy, talked about the challenges of educating information technology  professionals. His focus was not on the obstacles, but the solutions to developing more IT professionals – the workers who many hope will be the mainstay of Knowledge Park. Emard talked about more technology education in grades K through 12 and tapping into the talent of college graduates. The need for more trained IT professionals is great, he said. For every graduate, there are now 10 jobs.

Matt Dosch, senior vice president for external affiars at Comporium,  talked about Comporium’s desire to add massive capacity to its infrastructure. Comporium is considering becoming a Giga Byte city. In simple terms that means having Internet service that is extremely fast – 10 times faster than current residential service. That means individuals or companies can upload or download  massive amounts of data quickly. About two dozen cities nationwide have expressed interest in becoming Giga Byte ready. Only a few have acted, including Kansas City, Mo., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Dosch said he thinks Comporium’s efforts can exceed those two cities. How much that would cost and when it would happen are under study, he said.

City officials discussed providing a reliable source of electricity to the Bleachery, which was powered by its own system for many years and then by Duke. The city will spend $2.8 million to build a new substation at Stewart Avenue near the Bleachery.

Elliott told the group his job is to understand the area’s assets, understand its plan and then use those to redevelop the site, bringing in new companies and jobs.

“My job is like a symphony conductor,” he said. “I take a lot of local players and get them to play together.” If Sora does its job, “it all sounds great,” he said.

Elliott said Sora’s work is just starting. Company employees are getting records  of the Bleachery land and other sites that could be developed. They are assembling previous studies and starting to do their own market research.

Frequently discussed options for the land are retail uses and a community for active seniors. Sora will study the alternatives to see what’s feasible.

Elliott is already beginning to dream too.

One of Sora’s trademarks is paying homage to the history of a site. At Friday’s planning meeting, Elliott said one possibility would be to create a “high performance fiber research center and incubator” within the Knowledge Park.

The idea is based on the Inter Operability Labratory at the University of New Hampshire – where Sora has a project underway to create offices, a lab site and a town square project for the university.

The Inter Operability Labratory is testing the latest advances in computer networking, Elliott said. The giants of the industry come together at the lab to collaborate on problems.

The same idea could work with textiles. With  Rock Hill’s interest in sports,  Elliott envisioned a center where sports apparel companies such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armor could come together to develop  fabrics or other products.

And Elliott is already voicing goals. He’s been in town for a little while, working from temporary offices at city hall. He has checked out the downtown and its restaurants. He has also seen what happens when the downtown offices close at 5 p.m. and the migration home begins.

Part of the city’s and Sora’s vision is more businesses downtown.

“I yearn for the day when you can’t find a parking spot at 7:30 p.m.,” he said.

By Don Worthington, Staff Reporter with The Herald