Florence Mayor Wukela reflects on progress, goals

Florence Mayor Wukela reflects on progress, goals

FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - Nearly $130 million has been invested in a reemerging downtown Florence and hundreds of anticipated new jobs. That's just part of what Stephen Wukela is most proud of as the Mayor of Florence.

WMBF News sat down with him for the details, and to take a look at his goals as mayor of Flo-Town.

"All those windows in front of the Hotel Florence, they took out, refurbished and put back in so they could be eligible for those tax credits," Mayor Wukela says. A walk down West Evans Street paints a picture of preservation and progress for the mayor.

"Literally, we're sitting in the lobby of a hotel that wasn't here a year ago, and truth be told in a part of town that you probably wouldn't have wanted to be in a year ago," he says.

Wukela says Hotel Florence has been critical in luring visitors and other growth downtown, and halfway through his second term as mayor, he says creative incentives from a bi-partisan, but supportive council helped make it happen.

"These are things that had never been done before, and you had investors who were accustomed to doing very well investing around the interstate and more safe risk environments."

That partnership at the hotel added roughly 100 jobs and turned property tax revenue to $15,000 a year, up from $500 a year.

"We were able to create about a million dollars of incentive for them to make this $7 million investment, and in the end the city tax payers still saw an increase of revenue, beyond what they had seen with a vacant abandoned building," the mayor adds.

Wukela says money generated from the hotel alone in the first two years is expected to keep taxpayers from having to fund an upcoming $20 million bond for new parking decks, a new basketball center and other projects.

Without the hotel spending, tax payers with a $100,000 home would be paying about $42 a year more, and the hotel is already planning an expansion.

"They are expected to put some extended stay space in the top floor and some retail space in the bottom floor," Mayor Wukela says.

A walk upstairs to a hotel rooftop deck reveals a handful of other projects make up a chunk of that $130 million of new development in the roughly five years Wukela's been mayor and he says just 25 percent of that figure comes from city dollars, largely funded by tax revenue.

"That building there is the Waters Building; as you can see they've just finished putting the windows in on the top floor."

Add to that a $35 million Performing Arts Center at the site of an old and abandoned hotel.

Concerning the historic theater, the mayor states, "We want to redo the inside of that building and have independent movies or film festival type stuff."

On top of a museum and other improvements, the next goals in this cycle are residential. Wukela says that residential development will come by 2016 with the $15 million Francis Marion Health Sciences Facility, in the place of the old Trust Building.

"That'll change downtown dramatically and has already generated interest in apartment developers who see the potential for medical students and nurse practitioner graduate students who'll be looking for places to live," Mayor Wukela explains.

With an expansion of Hope Health, a former junkyard turns into a 20-acre, $10 million investment at the northern entrance to the city, adding around 200 jobs within the next couple years. "There will initially be 50,100 square feet, and after three stages they'll get up to 100,000 square feet."

Finally, Wukela says the $18 million repair and takeover of Timmonsville's water system and a more than $100 million investment for the Florence Regional Wastewater Management Facility were critical for recruiting larger industries. Overall, Wukela says he thrives on activity and growth and doesn't see an end to it anytime soon.

"I think the people of this community want results, and results are what make this job worth doing," he adds.

Wukela says there are a few more long-term projects he's excited about, but city leaders are still in negotiations, so he can't yet tells us about them just yet.

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