The biggest development project in Rock Hill's history inched forward last week, though developers don't expect to start building for at least another year.
Barring more delays, owners of the former Celanese property on Cherry Road next to Interstate 77 hope to present formal plans by December. On Tuesday, the city Planning Commission recommended rezoning the 1,000-acre site to allow negotiations to move forward.
“We've turned the corner,” said project manager Dave Williams. “We're no longer looking at clean-up. We're looking forward to construction.”
The project is symbolic of Rock Hill's shift from the textile industry toward a service-based economy centered on retail and offices.
Three years ago, workers walked away from their final shifts at the Celanese Celriver plant. A few years from now, their jobs will be replaced by cashiers, store clerks and corporate types at a development to be called Riverwalk.
The complex will take 10 to 15 years to finish. Plans include:
An outdoor shopping center facing Cherry Road similar to Birkdale Village in Huntersville, where stores and restaurants are built around lawns.
A business park with roughly 4 million square feet of industrial space, larger than any other park in the Charlotte area. Rock Hill's Waterford Business Park, by comparison, has 124,800 square feet.
Homes on wooded land near the Catawba River.
Football and baseball fields for youth sports and, potentially, an outdoor bicycle racing track known as a velodrome.
The property is widely considered to be York County's best available place for new companies and one of the best between Charlotte and Columbia. The reason is location – in full view of I-77 and close to railroad lines, Rock Hill and Fort Mill.
Those advantages help explain why the Celanese property hasn't faced the same challenges as other textile sites around South Carolina that have sat dormant for years. One of the biggest remaining hurdles is figuring out how to pay for road improvements and finish them in time for tenants to move in.
“Many of the concerns have not been addressed at this point,” said Bill Meyer, the city's development services director, referring to road upgrades.
At Celanese, an ownership group called the Greens of Rock Hill has spent more than $40 million since 2005 to haul away debris and clean up the site.
At its peak, more than 1,600 people worked at Celanese, making materials used in home furnishings, suit linings and cigarette filters. A dwindling customer base and competition from overseas markets forced a series of job cuts, and the plant closed for good in April 2005.