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Ex- Rock Hill leader again empowering a vision with downtown architecture

When Second Brick Ventures, a new effort by private investors to grow local technology companies, needed space, it went decidedly old school for help.

Owners considered a building in the heart of downtown – 202 E. Main Street where Caldwell Street intersects. Built in 1924 for the Rock Hill Supply Co., the building has been a furniture store, a photography studio and an antique warehouse.

Investors wanted to create a space that would have people stop and peer inside, wondering what’s happening there.

They asked the building’s owners to renovate the space into a bold office. They asked that the traditional frame – the brick walls, tin ceilings and wood floors – remain.

But they also wanted an airy, open floor plan. Some of the floors would be glass. They wanted people to see from front to back with lots of light. To accomplish that, they asked if the back wall of the building could be opened up and a rooftop garden with large skylights added.

Building co-owner and developer Joe Lanford said, “Count me in.” He said he would embrace the vision but might reserve judgment on adding a slide from the first floor to the basement. (A slide would allow workers easy access to the basement, where Second Brick Ventures hopes to have meals catered daily.)

Lanford, 73, is definitely old school. When he was Rock Hill’s city manager he led the effort to put a roof over downtown in 1977 – the TownCenter Mall.

The roof stayed over downtown until 1994 when it was torn down – with Lanford still city manager.

“In both cases, we made the right decision,” Lanford said.

Putting up the roof preserved downtown buildings, cleaned up the area and created a need for parking, he said. When the roof came off, it was time to turn what had been preserved into buildings that reflected the history of Rock Hill.

Lanford is also credited with the “Empowering the Vision” efforts that helped change the city’s image by focusing on education, arts and culture, infrastructure, gardens and greenways, businesses and historic preservation.

The vision was developed with lots of community input and relied on the combined resources of the city, York County, Winthrop University, York Technical College and the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. – the same coalition pushing the Knowledge Park. That project embodies the city’s new economic development strategy to create technology jobs as well as redevelop the former Rock Hill Finishing & Printing Co. plant known as the Bleachery.

Now Lanford wants to help empower those who have great ideas.

Second Brick Venture is, in part, the brainchild of Agie Sundaram, co-founder and CEO of the technology development firm, Span Enterprises. The idea is the first brick, Sundaram has said. The second brick is the money – and the expertise – Second Brick Ventures can offer.

In less than six months Second Brick Ventures has nurtured three ideas and is set to announce the first of them later this month. Sundaram said five workers for the new company already have been hired and the work force could swell to 25 to 30 by the end of the year.

Lanford didn’t have a cost estimate for the project but said it would likely take about six months. Second Brick Ventures is expected to rent about two-thirds of the 6,000-square-foot space.

Second Brick Ventures investors such as Brendan Kuhlkin, owner of Millstone Pizza and McHale’s Irish Pub, said more people downtown will create more business opportunities. J.D. Rhinehart, real estate agent and lawyer, said the 202 E. Main Street project, in conjunction with other downtown development efforts, should increase the rental rate for prime spaces. Currently the rate is between $10.50 and $13 a square foot, he said.

And the project allows Lanford to say one more time that “art endows a city with meaning.” But this time, Lanford, and the architects from Vinyet Architecture of Rock Hill, are the artists, and the canvas is 202 E. Main St.

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