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Cato could kick-start commercial development in Fort Mill

FORT MILL, S.C. – For every $1 the York County, S.C., town of Fort Mill receives in property taxes on residential properties, it has to spend $1.40 on services such as fire, police and schools. But for every $1 the town gets in taxes from commercial properties, it spends only 31 cents on services.

Mark Farris, the economic development director of York County, offers that as his best evidence that Fort Mill is troublingly devoid of the commercial development that would offset such a damaging disparity. Farris said if the town is to continue offering services that match the quality to which residents have grown accustomed, it needs more commercial development.

Mark Farris, York County economic development director, at Charlotte Knights Stadium, which could soon be sold. Photo by Nell Redmond

So with the recent $450 million development announced by the Cato Corp., the Charlotte-based women’s clothier, Farris said he thinks Fort Mill finally will get the commercial development for which it has been desperately clamoring.

“We need that balance of industrial and other commercial space to maintain the services we provide,” Farris said. “Without that inventory of commercial or industrial space, we’ll become that bedroom community that we can’t afford to be.”

The Cato plan paradoxically starts with the loss of one industry: baseball.

The inappropriately named Charlotte Knights, the region’s AAA baseball team, have called Fort Mill home for more than 20 years, but the name will make more sense in 2014, when the Knights move into the $54 million ballpark being built in uptown Charlotte.

Cato’s plan is to eventually develop the site of the Knights Stadium and the surrounding land, off Interstate 77 on Deerfield Drive. The plans are still in the very preliminary stages, but projections are that it will include space for offices, industrial, warehouse, apartments, retail and possibly a hotel, according to Mark Simmons, who works in the Columbia, S.C., office of law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein and is representing Cato in the predevelopment process.

“By and large, they’re looking at turning it into a Class A office-space type campus,” Simmons said. “That’s primarily what they’re trying to do on that property.”

The early plans – Simmons stressed the “early” – for the business park is to have three or four six-story office buildings and five or six three-story office buildings, he said. If those plans materialize, the park will be about 1.1 million square feet, which would make it among the biggest office parks in the area.

Cato has yet to release any specific information about the remaining development, but Simmons said there are portions of the property that lend itself to industrial space, flex space, retail and a hotel with as many as 240 rooms.

Cato’s interest in the property dates to at least October, when the company revealed it was looking into buying the surrounding 260 acres, which had fallen into bankruptcy. The plan at that time was that Cato would build a large distribution center there, and possibly do more development on the site.

In late December, Cato paid about $6.7 million for the 260 acres.

But before any of that development can commence, Cato still has to buy the 32-acre ballpark site. With the team’s move to Charlotte, York County has been looking for redevelopment options. Cato’s bid to purchase the property has been heard by the York County Council twice. The latest hearing was on Monday, at which the ballpark purchase was unanimously approved. But because the ballpark and land are owned by the county, one more vote is required before the deal can go through.

The going rate for the 32 acres of stadium land is about $260,000 per acre, Farris said, coming to a total of $8.32 million. The third hearing is scheduled for May 20.

Farris said plenty of ideas have been thrown out for redevelopment at the stadium, which the Knights paid for, then gave to the county so the team could avoid paying property tax. But, Farris added, the Cato proposition has been the best because it would put the property back on the county’s tax rolls.

But even if the purchase is approved for a third time, Farris said it could still take a few months to sort out all the particulars of the deal.

Cato is prepared to wait on development at the site, even if it takes longer than Farris says it will, Simmons said. The company knows this will be a long development process, requiring several partners, he said.

“What’s interesting about Cato is they’re very deliberate and patient,” he said. “You’ve got an owner there (Cato that) has the wherewithal to wait until the market it right.”

Warren Norman, principal of Warren Norman Company, a developer based in York County for more than a half-century, said getting commercial development in Fort Mill is crucial for the economic future of the town.

“We’ve taken a look at that property from a commercial standpoint, and we’ve realized there’s a void there,” Norman said. “There’s a real need (in Fort Mill) to see some growth on the commercial side.

“The residential side has been really healthy, but we need the commercial side to catch up a little bit.”

Norman said he thinks the land Cato is hoping to develop is poised for success, thanks largely to its location.

“It’s right there off the interstate (77) and it has easy access to Charlotte,” he said. “It’s only a few minutes from the airport. It’s actually closer to the airport than some places in Charlotte proper.”

Norman said he thought the property already would have some commercial development, but after the property fell into bankruptcy, it was hard for the owners to get anything done. He said he expects Cato’s involvement to make it work.

Farris’ expectations aren’t any lower.

“It has real potential,” he said. “It’s not an unreasonable development plan.”

But Farris said Fort Mill needs more than just Cato’s development.

“It creates an opportunity for us that starts a Ballantyne-type development along a major intersection along I-77 and gives us an option that we don’t have at the moment,” he said. “In economic development, there’s a theory of agglomeration that says the more you have, the more you’ll get.

“I think the momentum that will be established with that will continue once this gets done.”


GUION can be reached at [email protected], (704) 817-1344 or on Twitter at @paytonguion.

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