Please note that this is a previously unpublished feature article. I’m posting it here to reflect on my hometown’s industrial and cultural heritage. In addition, this article is to acknowledge and remember the vision of the late Lynn Stephenson.

In my hometown, community was a lifestyle long before smart codes, transects, and pattern books.  Like many others across the South, my hometown, Rock Hill, a city of roughly 50,000 citizens in the central upstate of South Carolina, grew up around the textile industry.  Working at a textile mill meant living and working in a tight-knit self-sufficient community.  The mills were community, in a way much unlike what we know today.  Generations of families were often employed at the same time in the same mill. Working for the mill meant company script at the company store, cheering for your mill’s baseball team, dips in the company pool, and visits to the company nurse.  Always at the center of community, was the mill.  It was what connected so many.  Upon the industry’s exodus from my hometown, however, only vacant and neglected buildings were left to allude to what once connected and provided for so many.

The largest mill in my hometown was the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Company, known to locals as the Bleachery.  It was a cloth printing facility and was the largest of its kind at its height, employing 5000 people.  Many of Rock Hill’s citizens as well as parents and grandparents of today’s citizens were employed at the Bleachery.  In fact, my grandparents were working there when they met and later married in the early 1940′s.  It was a social engine as much as it was an economic engine, and it was hugely significant to our town, its history, and even to my own family.

Although the Bleachery dominates it, it is only part of a complex of industrial buildings and brownfield land that has been dubbed Rock Hill’s Textile Corridor.  The Corridor comprises roughly 250 acres that were dominated by textiles.  Except for a few pockets of life, most of its buildings have been vacant for years.

The Textile Corridor sits at the center of town.  At one end is Main Street and the original downtown district which, with some significant forethought by city leaders, was recently revitalized.  Historic buildings were beautifully restored, and downtown Rock Hill, once again, contains several residential units, offices, restaurants, and shops, and hosts seasonal and arts-related events.

At the opposite end of the Corridor, lies Winthrop University, a public institution of about 6,500 students who enjoy a beautiful and architecturally significant campus. The activity and vibrancy of a college campus, naturally, lies in stark contrast to the current conditions of the Corridor.  For too long, the Textile Corridor has been the disconnect between these two vibrant city anchors.

Because there exist few precedents of this size and scale to emulate, the City of Rock Hill teamed with the consulting firm of Hunter Interests, who with a team of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, transportation engineers, and historians, studied the area and formed a plan for revitalizing it and reconnecting these city anchors.  The conclusion of the process, which included interviews, workshops, focus groups, charrettes, and historical studies, was a 15 to 20 year mixed-use build out plan for the area and its contents.  Implementing the plan will give the Textile Corridor a multi-million dollar face lift and a much needed breath of new life that will include housing, parks, restaurants, retail, and offices.

While proposed projects for other areas of the Corridor include an artisans and trade center, hotel and conference center, and entertainment elements, the Bleachery site will be renovated to include upscale townhomes and condominiums as well as an outdoor performance park, restaurants, and retail.  Owner and developer of the Bleachery project, Lynn Stephenson, of ELA Corporation, is anxious to get started.  She explains that her project offers a unique selling point:  “Residents can live close to both a downtown district as well as a college campus that offers performing arts, sporting events, and classes”.

Her excitement, in part, Stephenson explains is because she always knew that she wanted to have mixed-use areas in her hometown.  “I loved the energy and activity in places like Charleston and Savannah”.  She recognized that what she liked most about these great cities was their many mixed use elements.  This recognition has influenced and guided her vision for the site.  She also realizes that her piece of the Corridor is a huge factor in the overall success of this larger downtown.

Winthrop University’s administration is also on board.  They feel that the Corridor’s revitalization efforts will finally offer some college town atmosphere where none currently exists.  At the same time, the additional residential units constructed in the Corridor will ease a need for more student housing as the university seeks to grow its student body.  Even area arts supporters are excited.  They feel that what the project offers will alleviate a shortage of performance spaces in the city.

The biggest aspect of the revitalization process, and important on the minds of many of the citizens, will be the preservation of elements significant to Rock Hill’s history.  While some buildings are certainly not architecturally significant and will be demolished, some have very noteworthy architecture, with iconic towers and beautiful brick jack arches, and these will be restored to their original grandeur.  Several have been placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation, not only because of their architecture but for the role that they played in the community’s history.

On a smaller scale, artifacts that were salvaged over the years, such as weaving looms, fabric samples, photographs, and printing machines, will be showcased throughout the renovated Corridor to aid in preservation efforts.  For one of the exhibits, my grandfather even located his old tool box that he carried to repair the looms in the Rock Hill Cotton Factory, another mill in the Corridor.  It had not been opened since 1948 and still contained all of his tools and probably even more memories.

Repairing disconnected circulation will be a key step in mending the overall fabric.  Many roads and streets were closed as the Bleachery continued to grow.  By returning both vehicular and pedestrian circulation to the original street grid and generating a few street enhancements, some of the surrounding neighborhoods will be reunified and areas of the site that have been remote for years will again be accessible.

Also, a “new” transportation element will be introduced.  The Rock Hill Trolley Line was originally a street car pulled by mule that began operation at the turn of the century.  It was later operated by a battery car system but was discontinued during World War I.  This was a unique, if not phenomenal, feature for a city the size of Rock Hill.  The new Rock Hill Trolley Line will operate on some of the existing rail lines that run adjacent to downtown and Winthrop.  It will be reminiscent of the trolley line’s earlier days as it connects people between the two.

Coming to an agreement on the creative financing behind this grand plan was anything but simple.  Organization efforts have taken some time, and until recently, it seemed that all participants couldn’t agree to the terms.  The City of Rock Hill, Winthrop University, and owner/developers, like Stephenson, now seem to be on the same page.  Stephenson explains, “We were once three different elements all going for the same thing in different ways.”  She adds, “We were trying to make it happen but it wouldn’t work individually; It’s much like a puzzle that we must work on together”.

The largest part of the financial process was the City’s working with private property owners, because it only owns a portion of the property.  The City felt that property owners would be willing to work through the plan because their property has to be rezoned, has to receive infrastructure which comes from tax increment financing, and may need costly environmental cleanup.  The key for the City was making private owners understand how everyone involved gains.  Financing it requires a partnership between the public and private sectors.  The second part comes from federal and state incentives like historic preservation and brownfield cleanup credits.

Among the tax incentives available is a new piece of legislation.  The State of South Carolina recently enacted the Textile Community Revitalization Act to encourage redevelopment of these types of facilities.  This Act provides a tax incentive credit for rehabilitation expenses incurred while refurbishing textile facilities and their support structures.  Rock Hill will be one of the first cities in the state to take advantage of this.

For developers like Stephenson, a personal connection has made the effort even more worthwhile.  One of her inspirations is a gentleman that worked in the Bleachery for over 40 years.  He knows it well and, like many others, would rather see new life breathed into the old facility than to watch it continue to rot, even if that means portions may be demolished.  His memories have created an inspiration and personal connection for her and her staff.

Even though the Textile Corridor plan may still be an overly ambitious plan in the eyes of some, it is an exciting time to be a Rock Hill citizen.  Rock Hill has a rich history of community and enterprise to connect with and preserve.  Lynn Stephenson notes, “The Bleachery was Rock Hill’s economic engine, and that’s what this project will be again.”  Indeed the Corridor could generate millions in revenue which can impact its future, but it will also preserve and showcase this city’s very significant past.  The 250 acres that compose the Textile Corridor will once again be the center of our community and bring together many people.  I, for one, am excited to see what lies ahead for the Textile Corridor.

Author: Tory Parish

  • Adam Parish

    I'm really sad that Rock Hill no longer has Lynn Stephenson's visionary leadership.