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Council approves revised Knowledge Park finance agreement

YORK COUNTY — The County Council on Monday approved extending the timeframe and expanding the area of a special tax district to support the city’s downtown revitalization project, Knowledge Park.

The council voted 5-2 in favor of the changes. Council members who backed the changes said this may be Rock Hill’s best chance to redevelop an area including the former textile mill site known as the Bleachery, which is part of Knowledge Park and has been abandoned for years.

“I understand the downside, agree with a lot of the concerns, but I’m not willing to sit here and slam the door shut on that opportunity,” said council Chairman Britt Blackwell prior to the council’s vote.

The two council members who voted down the changes said they disagreed with giving up more county tax revenue for a project that’s not set in stone.

Rock Hill has been negotiating with Maryland-based Sora Development on a development agreement for the Bleachery site since last year. Although the County Council has looked at a draft of the agreement in executive session, it has not yet been signed by the Rock Hill City Council.

Stephen Turner, executive director of the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp., said that the Rock Hill City Council would vote Monday on the first reading of the development agreement between the city and Sora Development, and that the final reading would likely be within the next two weeks. The City Council will also vote Monday on whether to approve agreement, including the county’s changes.

In 2004, Rock Hill and the county signed an agreement that created a special textile corridor tax increment financing (TIF) district that allowed the city to issue up to $40 million in bonds for the redevelopment of the 23-acre Bleachery site, which is the focal point of Knowledge Park. The agreement also froze the amount of money the county and school district receive from property taxes within that area at 2004 levels, and any increase due to property appreciation would instead go to the city.

The district was originally set to expire in 2029, but Rock Hill requested last year that the expiration date be extended to 2039 because the redevelopment of the Bleachery site had moved slower than expected, and the extension would allow more time to pay off the bonds. The city also requested that the district be expanded to include  the West Main and West Black street corridors, both of which are southwest of the Bleachery site and run along the district’s current western boundary.

A dozen or so county residents have opposed Rock Hill’s request to extend the life of the district, saying at public hearings that they’re skeptical because the city has not specified how many jobs the Knowledge Park project will create or what private development projects will be included, other than the Bleachery.

Knowledge Park is a public-private initiative comprised of a corridor from Old Town East to Winthrop University in which the city hopes to revitalize the former textile tract and attract high-tech employers and private development.

Residents were also against the changes because they say Rock Hill has not been transparent in the past about how it was spending funds generated by the TIF district.

Turner said Tuesday he wasn’t sure the city provided the information on “a completely timely basis,” but that proof of every expenditure had been provided to the county within the past few months.

Councilman Robert Winkler, who voted for the changes, reminded residents that, regardless of the vote, the TIF district would be in place until 2029. He also said revisiting the agreement gave the county the opportunity to create new, stricter regulations.

“I feel like I would be disingenuous if I fought for all of this, got it, and then voted against what I fought for,” he said.

Two of the biggest changes the county made to the agreement are that the property tax revenue the county receives will be bumped up to 2014 values in 2029 until the district expires in 2039, as opposed to remaining at 2004 values. The county also added that all financial reports explaining how the city spends the extra tax revenue must be submitted annually to the county within, or Rock Hill must forfeit the county’s share of tax revenue for the previous year.

Councilwoman Christi Cox, who has been against Rock Hill’s proposal since the beginning, convinced the council to support an additional concession Monday. The council approved her motion to add to the agreement that the changes be dropped if the city’s negotiations with the proposed developer for the Bleachery site fall through, and, in the event that happens, the agreement be revisited by the county once Rock Hill lined up a new developer.

“Personally I feel like this is the last chance the city has,” said Blackwell regarding the city’s opportunity to redevelop the Bleachery site. “Truly if there ever was a blighted area, the Bleachery – the heart of the area – is a blighted area, no doubt about it.”

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