Hopes for college-town look remain unfulfilled

Chuck Robinson, owner of Cupps Cafe, strums his guitar in the restaurant on Cherry Road in Rock Hill on Wednesday. Winthrop University's Richardson Hall, left, and Wofford Hall, right, dorms are across the street. Cupps closed down Friday night.

After the last Abita beer and chocolate chip scone is served tonight, Cupps coffee shop will leave behind an empty space on a street with plenty of them.

Cupps' departure adds another twist to a long-running conundrum on Cherry Road: Why don't more businesses across from the Winthrop University campus last longer -- and what can be done to attract them in the future?

Now, some Winthrop boosters and real estate leaders are calling for a renewed effort to develop a vision for the street. They believe that if Winthrop is ever to create a college-town atmosphere in Rock Hill, this is a prime place to start.

For many years, the block has been a mismash of student rental houses, empty buildings and restaurants that come and go. Developers have tried to buy up properties in hopes of assembling enough land for a strip shopping center or multi-level retail project, but nothing has worked out.

If Winthrop is to create a college-town atmosphere, supporters say Cherry Road is a prime place to start.

"I'm hopeful that the Cupps announcement will prompt a wider realization that it will take more than Winthrop and individual business start-ups to make the 'college town' concept a reality," President Anthony DiGiorgio told The Herald in an e-mail.

A 'forgotten' block?

City officials and Winthrop have held talks over the years about extending streetscape improvements further south on Cherry Road. DiGiorgio would like to renew those discussions. So would some area business owners.

"They prettied up Cherry Road through the Coliseum, but they've forgotten this block," said Charlie Ruffalo, owner of the Sub Station II sub shop. "They haven't invested the money in this section. Down our end of Cherry Road, it still looks like it did 30 years ago."

The focus should be on more than one block, said City Councilwoman Kathy Pender, whose district includes much of the road.

"There are a lot of small businesses that are holding their own," she said. "But that area is not as booming as it could be. I think it's important that we keep in mind the whole corridor when talking about any kind of initiatives."

Even if landscaping, light posts and buried utility wires are installed, another challenge would await. Some of the properties belong to owners not all that eager to sell.

Two years ago, Rock Hill developer Jason Tuttle explored doing a new retail project on the block. He didn't get far, in part because the land was too expensive.

"Nothing brand new has been built on Cherry Road in a really long time, so it's just hard to know what people can afford to do," said Tuttle. "The national folks aren't looking at those deals. It's got to be somebody local or regional, and they're more risky in themselves."

Sushi bar in the works

One high-profile vacancy might be close to being filled. The old Time Out building is under contract to a Charlotte restaurateur who plans a sushi bar, said broker Randy Graham of Sperry Van Ness/Southern Commercial Real Estate.

Graham couldn't reveal names but said the buyer is well-established in the Charlotte restaurant business. The deal could be completed by early June for $549,000, Graham said. Graham believes the most realistic future is for each property to be developed individually. That's because some sites have already been renovated, driving up their costs.

"Unfortunately, I don't think you're going to be able to assemble at a reasonable land value," Graham said. "You look up and down that corridor, to assemble a 2-acre parcel is just going to be extremely expensive."

Will students support it?

Then there's the age-old question of whether Winthrop students can sustain more businesses. DiGiorgio believes they can, will and do, citing studies that put the school's annual economic impact on the region at $250 million.

Ruffalo, owner of Sub Station II, cautions that Winthrop alone won't be enough because students leave on weekends and in the summer.

"It's still virtually a suitcase college," said Ruffalo, now in his 22nd year. "Thursday night, Friday morning, they're out of here. Is there maybe not enough to attract students to stay here? Darned if I know. It's a Catch-22 for sure."

Some restaurants have lasted, such as Jersey Mike's and the White Horse tavern. An Earth Fare grocery store is opening in the old Harris Teeter, a potential shot of momentum.

Cupps owner Chuck Robinson thinks the success of future tenants rests with greater variety. Robinson isn't sure how long it will take to sell the Cupps building, but he's gotten several inquiries. The property is listed at $525,000, including equipment.

"Manchester Village, people will go there to shop and catch a movie," Robinson said. "Here, there aren't shops and entertainment. It seems like all the businesses come in sort of piecemeal."

A revolving door

Winthrop's stake in the effort is clear: Cherry Road represents the one side of campus that lacks a defined future. DiGiorgio said a snazzy new project on Cherry Road could have kickstarted redevelopment progress in the Textile Corridor -- a large swath of former mills near downtown -- by serving as a model of the possibilities.

"What we've seen repeatedly is that one storefront at a time just doesn't create the kind of critical mass needed for success," he said.

Down the street from Cupps, a Taco Bueno closed in early March, citing poor sales after just 10 months. The Mexican drive-thru replaced a Church's chicken restaurant, which sat boarded up until Taco Bueno arrived.

The sign out front is an empty metal frame, a fitting symbol for a street awaiting its revival.