The Magazine of South Carolina

"A Tale of Two Cities"

Rock Hill doesn't regard nearby Charlotte as a rival, but as a benefactor.

by Clay Andrews

How does a city of 48,000 people get away with selling itself as a large metropolitan area of more than 1.3 million, and tout such benefits as an NBA team, an NFL team, millions of square feet of shopping and the 12th-busiest airport in the United States in terms of general operations?

The city of Rock Hill has been doing this for years, and businesses and individuals have bought the story, hook, line and sinker. How can such respectable businesses as United Technologies, Chicago Pneumatic and Willamette Industries be taken in by such "tall tales?"

Rock Hill is located just 25 miles from uptown Charlotte, the third-largest banking center in the US, and Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. At the closest point, their city limit lines are less than 10 miles apart. Leveraging off the strength of this location within one of the most vibrant areas of the Sunbelt, Rock Hill is transforming itself from a seemingly ordinary, medium-sized city into a dynamic, fast-growing economic engine.

Its population, which stood at 41,643 in 1990, is now estimated to have topped 48,000 people, representing an 11-percent increase in six years. York County ranks at the top of the state's charts in median income. The area is home to several of the state's top school systems. York Technical College is the only two-year school working with the Department of Energy on vehicles that run off of electricity and other alternative fuels; the school has more than 4,000 students enrolled in associate degree programs. Winthrop University, with more than 5,000 students, grants degrees in more than 50 undergraduate disciplines and more than 40 graduate degree programs.

Even more impressive than the growing population is the growing corporate community. Since 1994, new and expanding companies have announced investments exceeding $617 million, which will create some 1,600 new jobs. "We know from research that the first reason these companies are coming is Rock Hill's proximity to Charlotte," says Clarence Hornsby, chairman of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation (RHEDC). "After that requirement, they like the type of community that we represent."

"Rock Hill knows when to be part of Charlotte and when to be part of South Carolina," says Betty Jo Rhea, now in her 10th year as Rock Hill's colorful and enthusiastic mayor. "We know we wouldn't have the opportunities we've had if it weren't for Charlotte. Other cities in the area were doing everything they could 10 years ago to distance themselves from Charlotte. We were the first to recognize Charlotte as the engine which would drive the area; we then set about creating a plan for participating in the growth that a large metropolitan area generates, while maintaining Rock Hill's distinctiveness, our sense of place."

This blueprint for the future was titled "Empowering the Vision." It was a strategic plan that called for Rock Hill to concentrate its resources on becoming recognized within the metropolitan area as a "Garden City," "Business City," "Art and Cultural City," "Educational City," "Historic City" and "Functional City." More than 200 citizens participated in these theme areas to shape Rock Hill's future.

The plan was adopted in 1989. Since then, Rock Hill has built a new city hall, created historic districts and a board of historical review, demolished a covered mall that was placed downtown in the 1970s in an attempt to halt the exodus of major retail, rebuilt a two-block section of Main Street and put in a new streetscape, installed civic art on Dave Lyle Boulevard at Cherry Park and in the new City Hall, and landscaped a new entrance into town from Interstate 77.

York Technical College has opened the Baxter Hood Center, a state-of-the-art video teleconferencing center capable of supporting meetings of 10-1,000 people. The meetings can be broadcast to anywhere in the building or the world.

The Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation has overseen the creation of TechPark and Waterford, two of the most successful and well-appointed business parks in South Carolina. Using architectural controls, lakes, walking trails, heavy landscaping and monumental signage, TechPark and Waterford have attracted office headquarters and manufacturers from all over the world. "This was not the cheapest location we considered, but when you factor in the location, the amenities and the type of community Rock Hill represents, Waterford was the best overall lo-cation for our headquarters for the Americas," says Joe Vocca, vice-president of finance for ATO-Tech USA, a division of French petrochemical giant Elf Aquataine.

Hornsby says the package approach is by design. "We don't sell 'cheap.' We have tried to build business parks that would attract companies who are also concerned about nonprice issues such as the setting of the parks and the quality of life in the community where they will locate. The city is creating a community which attracts the very type of companies all communities would like to have, but Rock Hill, by having a plan for investing in itself, has not left this issue to chance."

Work is not the only thing on the minds of Rock Hillians. They enjoy their spare time, too. There are plenty of things to do:

This is in addition to all the major sporting events, concerts, performances, shopping and din-ing available just 30 minutes away in Charlotte.

All "tales" aside, this is how Rock Hill has been able to sell itself to more than 60 new companies. It has proven it can offer the balance of small city quality of life with all the benefits of a large metropolitan city. It's not just a story that these companies have fallen for - it's a pleasant reality.

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