Cato eyes Fort Mill site

The Cato Corp. is in the final stages of buying 250 acres surrounding Knights Stadium in Fort Mill with plans to eventually build a distribution center there.

Cato would then turn over much of the remaining land at the site to a developer for a mixed-use project that would include shops, offices, commercial buildings and perhaps housing, according to sources with knowledge of the Charlotte-based retail chain’s plans for the site.

Although the pending Cato purchase doesn’t include the ballpark and the surrounding 32 acres, York County would likely participate in the development, county officials say.

In effect, the purchase would quickly answer the question: What will happen to Knights Stadium once the minor-league ball team moves to a stadium now under construction in uptown Charlotte?

Eventually, the 23-year-old stadium would likely be razed to make room for the mixed-use project, county officials say.

Last week, a U.S. bankruptcy judge in South Carolina approved the sale of the land around the stadium to Cato for $5.7 million.

A partnership formed to develop the site had previously planned a $200 million mixed-use project called Gold Hill Commons on the land. The project stagnated in the recession, and it eventually fell into bankruptcy in December 2011.

John Cato, chairman, chief executive and president of Cato Corp., says the company was interested in the land because of the bargain price. Cato gets Interstate 77 frontage at less than $23,000 per acre.

“We view this property as a great investment,” Cato says in a statement issued by the company.

He also confirms the company has plans for the property. “The land provides us significant flexibility as one alternative to improve and expand our infrastructure as we continue to grow in the future,” he says.

The retail chain is in a due-diligence period and hasn’t closed on the property.

Other bidders for the site included Beacon Partners of Charlotte, a developer named Summit Avenue Associates and Synovus Financial Corp. of Columbus, Ga.

Meanwhile, York County has formed a committee to determine what the county will do with the ballpark property.

Mark Farris, director of the York County Economic Development Board, says the ultimate county plan would likely influence surrounding development.

Eight meetings are being held by the committee, with the first session conducted in September at the stadium to familiarize the members with the topic.

Members of the committee include two members of the York County Council, Chairman Britt Blackwell and David Bowman; Rob Youngblood, president of York County Regional Chamber of Commerce; Mikki Rentschler, interim director of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau; Jon Percival, a member of the visitors bureau commission; Jerry Helms, vice president of Carowinds theme park; Farris; and representatives other county departments including the county manager, engineering and finance offices.

The group will hold a public forum to at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 29 in the Nation Ford High School auditorium in Fort Mill to hear ideas for the stadium and land.

In the past, York County residents have suggested other uses for the stadium and land, including a no-kill animal shelter, a mixed-use project with everything from homes and hotels to shops and entertainment venues, a football stadium, a ballpark for another baseball team and a shopping mall.

The meeting schedule should conclude in the summer to coincide with the Knights’ final season at the ballpark, Farris says.

Along the way, he will seek a request for qualifications for a consulting firm that will make recommendations on how to use the land. That study will be paid for with revenue the county collects for parking at the stadium.

York County could choose to become a partner in the redevelopment of the entire 280-acre site, Farris says.

“If somebody comes to the county and says, ‘I need this to make my development work,’ the county could sell it as is,” he says.

He says the ultimate plan may call for tearing down the 15,000-seat stadium. “At 23 years, it may be at the end of its useful life as a sporting facility,” Farris says.

The county has leased the stadium to the Charlotte Knights for a nominal fee. Now the city of Charlotte plans to have a new uptown ballpark ready for the team in 2014.

Shawn Helda, president of Corinthian International Inc., had the original vision for Gold Hill Commons. About 80 acres that his company, Gold Hill Enterprises, controlled is included in the 250 acres Cato has offered to purchase. Another parcel includes 137 acres belonging to the Jennings family of Fort Mill, which was cooperating with Helda in the Gold Hill Commons development.

An additional 50 acres is held by Synovus, which had taken back that part of the Gold Hill Commons land in a foreclosure.

The Gold Hill Commons partnership’s assets, made up entirely of the land, was valued at $14.4 million at the time of the bankruptcy filing. Liabilities in the bankruptcy petition were listed at $7.2 million.

Cato operates 1,302 stores in 31 states, up from 1,287 stores a year ago. Cato sells women’s apparel and accessories through its Cato, Versona and It’s Fashion stores.

Cato already has a 492,000-square-foot facility at 8100 Denmark Road in south Charlotte, most of which is used for distribution.

By Ken Elkins, Staff Reporter with the Charlotte Business Journal