The Magazine of South Carolina

Rock Hill

New Visions for the New Century.


   Visitors file through Glencairn Garden

The Mayfield House

City Hall

Winthrop clock tower

Performers at a Past "Come See Me" Festival

Kayakers at River Park

By Daniel E. Harmon

Of all the things you can do in Rock Hill today that you couldn’t do a generation ago, one perhaps defines the nature of the city’s odyssey: You can get lost in it. Visitors didn’t manage that very often in the past. But enter Rock Hill now, after an absence of a decade or so, and the changes may be more than a little disorienting. All the mills have closed. A modern municipal complex dominates a downtown that’s undergone two major facelifts in 25 years. Winthrop College—long synonymous with "Rock Hill"—is now a university; while familiar campus landmarks remain, Winthrop, too, has grown.

On the perimeter, neighborhoods once on the outskirts are part of the city proper now. Retail, industrial and sports parks buzz. Through annexation, Rock Hill has grown to half again its dimensions of 13 years ago. It isn’t a city of skyscrapers; it’s a city of sprawling construction and activity.

Depending on which benchmarks you use, Rock Hill arguably was the state’s fastest-growing city of the ’90s. No, the growth isn’t entirely linked to Big Sister Charlotte just across the state line. York County generally and greater Rock Hill in particular have substantial old and new industries of their own. They also have that priceless intangible—call it "southern comfort," perhaps—that makes newcomers want to join the community and natives loath to move away.

"Rock Hill was like many small southern towns when I came in 1970—a blue-collar textile town," says Gerry Schapiro, acting city manager. "I think Rock Hill has evolved into a high-amenity type town, in terms of quality of life, whether it’s school or health services, arts, city government. It’s a whole different city now."

"I used to drive less than a mile before seeing 12 people I knew. Now I drive 12 miles before seeing one person I know," quips native Chuck Cobb.

Jim Bazemore, proprietor of Central Newsstand & Bookstore on Main Street, says it isn’t just a matter of growth. "When I was a kid, a lot of people I knew worked in the cotton mills—there were seven in town. Now the textiles are gone, and there’s a lot of diversity."

Since 1988, more than 100 annexations have added 11 square miles and 2,000 new residents. Corporate Rock Hill now encompasses 32 square miles and had, by 1999 estimates, more than 52,000 citizens. The state’s fifth-largest city, it runs on an annual budget of $105 million. "It’s a bigger budget than most people realize," Schapiro says. "We own the electric, water and sewer systems; we’re the largest city in South Carolina to operate its own utilities."

Within city limits, service industries are Rock Hill’s economic life blood. The five leading employers: 1) Rock Hill School District 3 (which encompasses the city limits and outlying territory) employs 1,800 workers and was serving 14,741 students by the end of the last school year; 2) Piedmont Medical Center, a 268-bed hospital, employs 1,350 people; 3) Winthrop University has 934 employees and about 6,000 students; 4) the City of Rock Hill has 793 full- and part-time workers; and 5) York Technical College has about 500 employees and 3,500 credit students.

Besides old and new businesses inside city limits, just outside are several industrial giants: Duke Power’s Catawba Nuclear Power Plant, Celanese Chemicals and Bowater Incorporated.

Rock Hill has had only four city managers in the past 50 years. "That’s a sign that it’s a very stable city government," Schapiro says, "and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful." Another reason for success through the textiles-to-diversity transition has been city leaders’ ability to take advantage of where they are. More than half the U.S. population, officials point out, are within a 90-minute flight or day’s drive of Rock Hill. They harbor no sense of rivalry with metropolitan giant Charlotte—but they’re happy to have Charlotte close by. Because of it, Rock Hill happily is situated well within the nation’s fifth largest trade area.

Many people coming to work in Charlotte choose to live in Rock Hill because of the quality of life. "Charlotte has been a real asset for us," Schapiro says. "It’s the key magnet. When people move to the Charlotte area, we want to be their best choice in the Charlotte area. When you see our parks, I think you’ll agree that we’ve succeeded."

When city officials speak of "our parks," they’re typically referring to the area’s four industrial parks. They’re also excited by retail growth, most conspicuous at the suburban shopping malls. No fewer than 22 restaurants have opened during recent years in or adjacent to the new Galleria Mall, just off I-77. "That’s just in one area of town," Schapiro points out.

"The growth in some areas has been unreal," says native Winky Staton, hostess of Harmony House Bed & Breakfast. "The Galleria area was just wilderness when I was a little girl."

She’s generally pleased with how the city has managed growth. "You’ve got to have programs for people, and you have to make it look aesthetically nice, too. I think we’re doing that. We have some good city planners who are bringing in a lot of industry. And property taxes are comparatively low."

Much of what’s happening in Rock Hill today stems from the city’s 10-year plan of the 1990s, "Empowering the Vision." At the "official" entrance to the city from Dave Lyle Boulevard, Gateway Plaza presents that vision to incoming motorists. The circular, gardened intersection is dominated by four 13-foot "Civitas" bronze sculptures by New York artisan Audrey Flack and two historic, 60-foot Egyptian Revival columns. Each "Civitas" (Latin for "civic pride") holds in its hand a symbol of one of the "vision’s" improvement themes.

"We’ve accomplished a great deal, in terms of ‘Empowering the Vision,’ " says Mayor Doug Echols. "We have to continue that vision process. We need to stay ahead of challenges and growth."

Just since he took office in 1998, several projects have taken shape. Besides Gateway Plaza, other entrance corridors are being redeveloped and beautified. The city is working with property owners along I-77 to encourage attractive development—crucial to the city’s image. Partly completed is impressive Manchester Village, a mixed-use development (shops, dining, business offices, housing). Downtown, the "Old Town Renaissance" plan succeeds "Empowering the Vision." "This new plan will initiate tremendous improvements over the next 5 to 10 years in the Old Town area," Echols says. Old Town is roughly the realm within a mile and a half of City Hall.

To grasp the continuing effort, go straight to Main Street. Eleanor Porter, supervisor of administrative services for Rock Hill Parks, Recreation & Tourism, is one of the PRT staff who frequently provide city tours to visitors. Porter, a Winthrop graduate, starts her tour along Main, pointing out renovations of historic buildings that hopefully will bring new business as well as upscale condos and apartments to the city center. The effort to give treasured old structures new life obviously is well managed: The city has received two Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Awards for arts and preservation.

From downtown, Porter takes you to Huckle Tree Grove. There, you can rest beneath a tree grown from the cutting of a famous Indian treaty site. Then on through the historic district, past Winthrop’s campus to Cherry Road.

There may be no joy in Mudville, but there’s plenty at 68-acre Cherry Park, opened in 1985. Mark Lundeen’s towering bronze of "Mighty Casey" challenges visitors at the entrance. One National Softball Association Youth Girls Fast-Pitch division held its World Series here in 1999; more than 700 teams trooped into Rock Hill from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Another division is coming to town for its World Series as this issue of the magazine goes to press. For the past 13 years, the National Softball Association has ranked Cherry Park among the nation’s top 10 parks.

A walking trail surrounds the park. Picnic tables and playgrounds are available to the public.

How did Cherry Park and Cherry Road get their names? The family of farmer and businessman James Milton Cherry gave the land for the park to Winthrop. Cherry Road was the first paved road in South Carolina, Porter says.

Which brings us back—literally—to Winthrop. The university was established in Columbia as a women’s teacher’s college in 1886, moved to Rock Hill in 1895, went co-ed in 1974 and attained university status in 1992. Rated among the South’s top 20 regional universities by U.S. News & World Report, it’s a spacious property: 100 shaded acres of main campus plus a 450-acre sports/recreation area. The sports center includes a new baseball stadium and coliseum. The world disc golf championship was held here in 1998, the national championship last year. The complex also accommodates regular golf and soccer.

The sports facilities are on the "college farm" section of the campus. "Until the 1930s," Porter says, "this was a working farm. This is where the food for the college was grown." An agricultural remnant of that legacy is a greenhouse where the university grows flowers for campus events. Today, citizens as well as students come to walk and to fish in the small lake.

Winthrop brings concerts, art shows and other cultural events regularly to the city. They augment local offerings by the Rock Hill Community Theatre, York County Choral Society and York County Concert Ballet.

Winthrop isn’t the only institution of higher learning here. Besides York Tech, Clinton Junior College offers business, divinity and liberal arts associate degrees.

In addition to Cherry Park and the Winthrop "farm," Rock Hill parks include the city’s famous crowning glory. Glencairn Garden was the back yard of the David Bigger family, who started it with a few azaleas in 1928. The Biggers gave it to the city in 1958. The late Robert Marvin, a noted landscape architect (see the Summer 2001 Sandlapper), turned Glencairn into a wonderland. Today it features lovely trails, a fountain, a lily pond with a foot bridge . . . and 20,000 azaleas, plus a rich variety of other flowers. The "Come See Me" festival is held in and around Glencairn each April.

Rock Hill has several museums, including the Rock Hill Telephone Museum where you can dial a century-old phone and learn about the history of telecommunication. Not far away are the Catawba Cultural Center, devoted to Catawba Indian heritage, and the Museum of York County with its world-famous collection of mounted African hoof stock.

Family fun awaits at the border, just up I-77: Paramount’s Carowinds is a water and theme park with 50-plus rides and shows. Meanwhile, canoers, kayakers, hikers and picnickers enjoy scenic, 70-acre River Park, a nature-based tourism project on the Catawba.

Part of the 10-year "Vision" was to undo a failed earlier attempt at downtown revitalization. The city roofed much of the central area in 1977, hoping for a quaint "mall" effect. By the 1990s, with stores moving to popular new suburban malls, leaders knew it was time for a fresh approach. The roof came down in 1993.

Old Town today has an attractive look, exciting renovations in progress and brisk traffic. The Gettys Building, now home to professional offices, earlier served as a Post Office and federal courtroom. The former McCrory’s in 1961 was the scene of a landmark Civil Rights sit-in. Several other period structures have housed banks, past and present. During the 1920s, Porter notes, Rock Hill was regarded as the banking capital of South Carolina. Chuck Cobb fondly remembers his grandfather Charlie Cobb, who helped organize the People’s National Bank in 1906 and literally kept the side door open after the 1929 market crash, making change and keeping small accounts for grateful customers.

"This always has been a progressive community, willing to meet the challenges it faced," observes Mayor Echols, who also is commissioner of the South Atlantic Athletic Conference. "It’s been helped by a unique partnership between the city, schools, university and businesses that you don’t see in many other communities."

One example of industrial involvement is Bowater’s monetary support of "Reach Out and Read," an early-childhood literacy program in York County schools. A much smaller business, but no less committed to the community, is the Rock Hill Coca-Cola Bottling Company. General manager Fred Faircloth’s grandfather W.M. Mauldin bought this Coca-Cola "territory" in 1908. The Cherry Road plant soon will move into new facilities just outside the city.

"This town has been extremely good for our company," Faircloth says. "The community is very dear to us for a lot of reasons."

Before it was a banking town—or a mill town or an industrial town—Rock Hill was a railroad town, and before that an agricultural community. In 1852, founding father John Black donated land for a train depot, and a Post Office opened. The town was incorporated in 1892.

"We started as a village called Ebenezer," Porter says. "The railroad wanted to come through Ebenezer, but the people said no, it would stir up a lot of dust and scare the horses." Ultimately, the station was built on a flint rock hill that stymied rail workers. Rock Hill became a commercial hub connecting other states with depots across South Carolina. Soon, cotton and railroads combined to make it a thriving textile center.

Locals refused to be wed exclusively to train transport, though. John Anderson’s buggy company in 1916 became one of America’s early car makers to compete successfully—for awhile—with Henry Ford. Anderson produced as many as 35 autos a day, as well as Army trucks. The Anderson car was the first with a headlight dimmer switch and the first made in a color other than black, Porter says. The company survived only until 1925, though; Anderson couldn’t compete with Ford’s low-cost mass production.

While innovative and progessive, Rock Hill hasn’t let changes devour its foremost asset: its people. Wayne Brown, a city environmental inspector and retired policeman, has lived here all his 56 years. He says the story of his hometown is one of "continual progress and development. I remember Cherry Road as a narrow, two-lane road with scattered businesses. It’s our main thoroughfare now. And we have new people coming here from all over the world.

"But Rock Hillians are a friendly lot. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed."

* Bowater Incorporated, Catawba
* Comporium Group, Rock Hill
* National Bank of York County
* Rock Hill Bank & Trust, Rock Hill
* Rock Hill Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Rock Hill
* Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation, Rock Hill
* York County Natural Gas, Rock Hill

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