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10 likely newsmakers in 2015

From managing growth to battling gangs, 2015 will offer challenges and opportunities for York, Chester and Lancaster counties. We take our annual look at the top issues confronting area residents and community leaders.

York County, Rock Hill seek ‘positive’ growth

In 2015, efforts will continue to manage growth in many areas of the county while still encouraging economic development. Growth across the county will be “positive,” said David Swenson, director of economic development for York County, explaining the county is definitely seeing “upward momentum.”

But that growth can’t go unchecked. In Rock Hill, a construction moratorium on multifamily housing, including apartments, condos and townhomes, will lift in August, unless the city council votes to extend it by another three months. The restriction was passed unanimously in November after a busy year for builders in Rock Hill.

More than 1,200 units were either under construction or approved for development prior to the ban, which doesn’t apply to projects already approved or those in certain areas of the city, like downtown or the former textile area near West White Street. Projects designated as “senior housing” also are allowed.

Some fear that more multifamily housing could put too much strain on Rock Hill’s services and infrastructure.

There are similar concerns in Lake Wylie. In late 2014, the county council voted to delay action on a plan to protect the area from overdevelopment, after county officials said they needed to study the issue more.

Area residents have concerns about straining public services, increasing traffic and confronting environmental hazards to the lake. The council will take up the planning proposal again during the summer.

In Fort Mill, the continuing rapid growth is presenting an enormous problem for the Fort Mill School District, which is both the fastest growing and the geographically smallest school district in the state.

In the next decade, school officials anticipate spending nearly $400 million on new construction and maintenance, including for five new schools. The district anticipates enrollment will jump from around 12,000 students this year to more than 20,000 students by 2020.

While the district collects impact fees from new home construction, those one-time fees don’t come close to covering the cost of school construction or of educating the students. At a county council meeting in November, district officials said they anticipated a $173 million deficit in the next decade. Rachel Southmayd

Construction to begin on large gold mine in Lancaster County

Construction on an industrial-scale gold mine in Lancaster County should get underway in early 2015.

The mine, owned by Toronto-based Romarco Minerals Inc., will take about 18 months to develop and will occupy around 2,500 acres of rural land near Kershaw. Once the mine starts operating, it will be the largest gold-digging operation in the eastern part of the country.

The mine, which has the support of local business leaders and Gov. Nikki Haley, among others, faced opposition from the state’s Sierra Club, but the S.C Department of Health and Environmental Control board has upheld the mining permit.

The space will feature a pit 840 feet deep, and the project could affect 1,100 acres of wetlands. Of the area affected, just 120 acres will be destroyed, according to Romarco. The rest should recover when mining stops in 15 years.

Romarco’s goal with the mine, which is an extension of the closed Haile Gold Mine, is to dig up 2 million ounces, or nearly 57 tons, of gold. The company eventually plans to create 270 jobs. Rachel Southmayd

Winthrop to picks its 11th president

Winthrop University is looking for its 11th president, and this time, board members hope to pick someone who will be in office longer than 11 months.

After firing Jamie Comstock Williamson – the school’s last president – last summer, Winthrop leaders began a search for her replacement and hired a presidential search consultant in September. Winthrop’s nonprofit fundraising arm, the Winthrop Foundation, is footing the bill for the search. Costs will run an estimated $140,000.

Winthrop search committee members, who include school trustees and other appointees, will likely interview some interested applicants during the next two months. As the committee narrows the pool, at least three finalists are expected to be named. Around March or April, those finalists are expected to visit Winthrop and Rock Hill.

If the search stays on schedule, Winthrop’s next president will take office this summer before the start of a new school year.

Meanwhile, a legal dispute between Winthrop and Williamson is unresolved. An attempt to mediate the issues surrounding the ex-president’s departure failed late last year. Winthrop officials have yet to answer questions about whether they’ll offer a financial settlement to Williamson.

School officials have said the lingering legal battle won’t delay hiring a new president. Anna Douglas

Chester County voters return to the polls

After a contentious election year in 2014, voters might have hoped for a respite in the new year. But for voters in Chester County, plans for a quieter 2015 came to an end Dec. 1, when the S.C. State Election Commission overturned November’s vote for county supervisor and ordered the polls to be opened again.

Incumbent Carlisle Roddey, who has held the post on and off for eight terms, and challenger Shane Stuart, who ran a close race Nov. 4 as a petition candidate, now have two months to get their campaigns back in gear before a re-vote on March 3.

Roddey won the June Democratic primary by a wide enough margin to avoid a runoff against two challengers – Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow and Chester County Sheriff’s Deputy Randall Marsh. Many believed he would win re-election handily, but Stuart, a former law enforcement officer and Air Force reservist who previously trained Afghan police officers, came within 230 votes of unseating Roddey in the general election.

Stuart then appealed the result because ballots at 10 precincts were found to be missing certain offices – but not the supervisor’s race – on Election Day, discouraging voters. Stuart also said alternative arrangements denied voters the right to cast a secret ballot. State officials agreed and ordered a new election for the post.

The result in such an unusual race is unclear. Voters may not be expecting an election in March. Turnout could be light.

In the meantime, Roddey must handle county business for the next couple months even if his long-term future is uncertain. He will begin a new term as supervisor this month; how long he stays in office will be determined by voters in March. Bristow Marchant

York County Council faces challenges

York County Council will have its share of challenges to confront in the new year. And council members will confront them with some new faces.

Two of the seven council members will take their seats for the first time at the council’s initial meeting of 2015 on Monday. Rock Hill attorney Christi Cox is replacing veteran councilman Curwood Chappell, who decided after 22 years not to seek reelection last year. Robert Winkler, a York financial planner, defeated incumbent Joe Cox in the Republican primary in June. Both are taking elective office for the first time.

They and their colleagues will have to take on a long list of challenges this year. Among them is whether to go along with the city of Rock Hill and the Rock Hill school board in agreeing to extend a special tax district in the city to help fund Knowledge Park, a plan for developing the area between downtown and Winthrop University. York County must also complete its 10-year countywide comprehensive plan in 2015, potentially shaping the county’s growth for years to come.

Renovation of the historic county courthouse in York should also resume in 2015 after the council agreed to move forward with the project last year. Also, cramped offices in other county facilities could lead to more construction and renovation this year

Cox and Winkler replace two of the council’s most outspoken members. But both believe they will be able to work toward common goals.

“I’m very excited to work with them,” Cox said of her fellow council members. “I think we all have the interests of the county at heart and are willing to work together.”

“When I moved here 13 years ago, the county council then was pretty much the definition of dysfunctional,” Winkler said. “We’ve moved a long way from that. We won’t always agree, but we can continue to work together.” Bristow Marchant

The continuing saga of the Fort Mill hospital

Could 2015 be the year York County residents finally see construction of a Fort Mill hospital?

Possibly.

In late December, the S.C. Administrative Law court ruled Piedmont Medical Center could build a 100-bed, $146.5-million hospital at the intersection of S.C. 160 and U.S. 21. The new hospital is slated to have all the services of a community hospital – general surgery, emergency department, labor and delivery, and advanced imaging.

Piedmont has asked its architects to update plans for the hospital to reflect changes in health care, as well as federal and state regulations. The plans must be approved locally and by the state Department of Health and Environment Control.

Building, equipping and staffing a new hospital is about a two-year process, said Lynn Bailey, a health care economist based in Columbia.

Piedmont officials have said they hope to have a Fort Mill hospital operational by the first quarter of 2018.

Construction, however, is contingent on whether Carolinas HealthCare Systems appeals the administrative law court’s decision.

DHEC awarded a certificate of need to Carolinas HealthCare in September 2011. Piedmont appealed to the administrative law court. After several weeks of testimony in the spring of 2013, Judge Phillip Lenski ruled for Piedmont. He later vacated that decision and issued a new order in December, again ruling for Piedmont.

Carolinas HealthCare, parent company of Carolinas Medical Center, has two legal options. It can appeal the administrative law court’s decision to the S.C. Court of Appeals, or it can file in federal court.

“Carolinas HealthCare could use its leverage and file in federal court, challenging South Carolina’s certificate of need law,” Bailey said.

Carolinas HealthCare officials are considering their options. Don Worthington

Key hurdles loom for Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park

Two key components of Knowledge Park – Rock Hill’s effort to attract high-tech jobs and redevelop the corridor between Winthrop University and downtown – may fall into place in early 2015.

The first is a master development agreement between the city and Sora-Phelps, a partnership between Sora Development of Towson, Md., and Phelps Development of Greeley, Colo. The partnership was selected in 2013 to develop the Knowledge Park, site of the former Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. The partnership has proposed the development of 1.3 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and residential space that would create more than 1,000 jobs.

Stephen Turner, the city’s economic development director, said the council is still waiting on a draft master agreement from Sora-Phelps. He estimated it would take the council at least 60 days to consider a master development agreement.

The second component is expanding and extending the time frame for a special tax district to help fund the project. The Rock Hill School District has approved extending the district 10 years to 2039.

The York County Council is expected to consider approving the district early in 2015. Both the school district and York County must agree to the changes because they receive tax revenue from property in the district.

Once the master development agreement and tax district changes are in place, Turner said attention would turn to the Knowledge Park’s first project, most likely the renovation of the existing Lowenstein building. Don Worthington

State leaders eye road repair solutions

Across the state, 2015 will likely bring increased pressure on lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley to find money for much-needed road repairs on South Carolina’s busiest highways, including interstates.

Later this month, Haley is expected to unveil a roads plan that she has pledged will address South Carolina’s infrastructure woes without raising taxes. Also this month, state House members will hammer out proposals for how to restructure funding of road projects and perhaps the S.C. Department of Transportation.

State Rep. Gary Simrill of Rock Hill is leading a House committee focused on drafting such proposals. Roads and infrastructure will be a priority for the General Assembly in 2015, he said. But it will take time to craft solutions, pass bills and put “asphalt on the road.”

He plans to meet again with Haley soon after lawmakers convene for a new legislative session in Columbia later this month. Among his ideas for paying for major road repairs is decreasing the state’s gas tax but removing the sales tax exemption from fuel pump sales.

Over time, he said, this will bring in more money to fix roads. He proposes increasing the amount of money counties receive for making local road repairs while also increasing the number of roads each county is responsible for maintaining. Simrill, a Republican, said the House may vote on a major plan for roads by March, which would move the proposal to the state Senate.

Locally, York County has several road projects underway, paid for by a local 1-percent sales tax. Major construction will continue this year on the Fort Mill Southern Bypass. A few other projects – road maintenance work – will be done around the county with funding from the state DOT.

In Lancaster County, officials hope to borrow more than $12 million early this year to pay for projects involving more than 20 main roads. That money will be repaid with funds from a 1-percent sales tax extension approved in November by Lancaster County voters.

The roads needing work the worst in Lancaster County will be the priority, but the order of completion has not yet been determined, said Steve Willis, county administrator. For state-owned roads on the list, Lancaster County will pay for the work and SCDOT will complete the project. For county-owned roads, the work will be done through the county transportation commission. Anna Douglas

Will another local high school team win a state championship?

Local high school football fans undoubtedly began prognosticating about the 2015 season on Dec. 7, the day after South Pointe won the 3A state championship and York fell in the Class 4A, Division II title game. For fans of teams that didn’t make the postseason, the focus on next season began even earlier.

South Pointe again looks like a state championship contender in Class 3A. The Stallions return a number of contributors from 2014, including a pair of starting wide receivers, starting quarterback Greg Ruff, and a number of playmakers in the defensive secondary.

York, too, could be a big player next year, in the Class 4A, Division II playoffs. The Cougars graduate a number of important contributors but do return standout sophomore Wally Wilmore and bruising running back Brandon Garvin, as well as a number of offensive line starters.

Northwestern, Rock Hill and Fort Mill will have a lot of talented seniors to replace, while Nation Ford will return one of the area’s best throw-and-catch duos in Cole Martin and Hank Tuipulotu.

Chester will have a new coach for the first time since 2009, while Lewisville will hope that its year of teaching youngsters on the job will begin to pay off in 2015. Bret McCormick

Battling gangs in Chester County

Chester County’s “war on gangs” will likely continue on two fronts this year.

Sheriff Alex Underwood targeted the county’s gangs in November when he announced the arrests of three men in the shooting death of Chester City Council member Odell Williams. Eventually, five men were charged in Williams’ death. One is accused of murder, the other four with accessory to murder.

All five are members of the RoundTree Circle Gang, one of six known gangs in Chester, officials said. Police say the gangs have as many as 300 combined members.

“We have declared war on gangs in Chester County,” Underwood said on Nov. 13. “They think they run this county, but they don’t.”

Underwood said gang members had threatened his life and the lives of his deputies and their families.

In early December, 10 state probation agents spent a weekend in Chester County helping sheriff’s deputies with patrols and working to find gang members or those suspected of being in gangs.

Underwood also bickered with county government leaders about funding the anti-gang effort. The sheriff in early December asked the county council to appropriate money for him to hire four more patrol officers and a gang investigator.

“I don’t know if it has to be one of you or your family to be killed,” Underwood told the council. “But we have received no cooperation from this council.”

The county council and Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said the county doesn’t have the money. County leaders already devote 31 percent, or more than $5 million, of the county’s annual budget to the sheriff’s office, Roddey said.

“To say the county does not support the sheriff is simply untrue,” Joe Branham, county council vice chairman, wrote to The Herald in mid December. “To say the sheriff does not have the money to do what he needs to do is simply untrue.” Paul Osmundson

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