GEORGETOWN, SC (WMBF) – Members of the Georgetown City Planning Commission voted against a rezoning ordinance that officials said would have been a "death sentence" for the old Georgetown steel mill.
The planning commission voted four to three against the rezoning at Tuesday's meeting.
Representatives for the parent company of the current owners of the old steel mill said the proposed rezoning effort would have been “incompatible” with the mill’s proposed re-opening.
Keith Nagel, the director of environmental affairs and real estate at ArcelorMittal, spoke at the meeting. He said the city’s rezoning effort would have resulted in retail, residential and office uses for the mill’s property starting within the next 20 to 25 years.
“While there have been public statements recently that the rezoning will ‘grandfather’ the use of the site as a steel mill, we want to be clear that this is not realistic,” Nagel said. “The rezoning ordinance only guarantees that the site could be used as a steel mill for another five years. It also says that the structure of the steel mill cannot be substantially improved during those five years.”
According to Nagel, on Friday, ArcelorMittal announced an agreement in principle to sell the mill to the Liberty House Group. He added the company has the resources available to reopen the mill.
“It is unreasonable to expect Liberty to buy the mill and make investments to secure its future, if they will only be able to operate it for a short time,” Nagel said. “For these reasons, the rezoning ordinance would be a death sentence for our agreement with Liberty House, and for steel jobs in Georgetown.”
Nagel added that if the rezoning ordinance were to pass and cause potential buyers to walk away, ArcelorMittal would have been forced to pursue legal action. His comments were met with a round of applause from the audience.
The steel mill officially closed in August 2015. During its last full year of operation, the facility employed 207 employees and contributed nearly $17 million in annual payroll and real estate taxes, according to information from ArcelorMittal.
The proposed rezoning will still go to city council and is expected to be on the agenda for the next meeting in May, Mayor Jack Scoville said.
While a few people spoke in favor of the city rezoning the steel mill site and going forward with a redevelopment plan from the Urban Land Institute, the majority of people at the planning commission meeting were very much against it.
"I think once it was announced that this mill is going to be sold, I think the proper thing to do would’ve been done by city council is withdraw the zoning request and defer it until maybe three, four, five months and see what happens," said James Sanderson, president of United Steelworkers Local 7898. "Because you’re looking at 20 to 25 years before they even realize anything from the ULI, so three or four months from now isn’t going to hurt anything."
Scoville said the city has gone forward with the rezoning process despite the news of a buyer just in case the steel mill closes once again.
“It’s been shut down three times in the past decade or so," he said. "If it fails again, then I think everyone would be agreeable that it’s time to do something different.”
Sanderson said people are looking forward to the potential reopening of the steel mill.
“I think we see good times happening at that plant. We see the steel mill opening back up. We see people returning back to work, making decent money and good benefits," he said.
Liberty House sees the opportunity in reopening the site.
“Georgetown has a long history of being able to make good quality, higher quality products," said Gordon Spelich, operating partner for Liberty.
The company is in the process of closing on the steel mill with ArcelorMittal. The proposed rezoning ordinance, however, has sparked some concerns.
“If this rezoning passed as is, it would definitely be a problem," Spelich said.
Right now, the proposed rezoning allows the steel mill to reopen, but it must do so within a year, which Spelich said isn’t a problem. However, it also limits operations to five years.
“You can’t make a significant capital investment knowing that in five years you can’t do anything with it," he said.
Scoville said the city will work with Liberty House on its concerns about the current proposed rezoning ordinance if the company can guarantee it will open the steel mill up quickly and clean up the site.
“We will be very flexible with them," he said.
Spelich said he still thinks the rezoning is unnecessary right now.
“Now that we’re here, I think the plan can be put on the shelf and we can just move forward," he said. "Bring the jobs to town. Bring the ancillary jobs to town.”
However, he said he's optimistic about the potential rezoning.
“I think with some further discussion that everybody is going to come to a place where it’s workable for everyone," Spelich said.
Liberty has that same optimism about the longevity of the steel mill from this point forward.
“We’re here and we’re not going anywhere this time," Spelich said.
Scoville said he met with Spelich and the county administrator prior to the planning commission meeting. They had an hour-and-a-half discussion about Liberty’s plans and the city’s plans.
"We’ve assured them that if there’s something that’s a serious problem with our rezoning, we can address that and we’ll be happy to work with them," he said.
Spelich said there is no timeline for closing with ArcelorMittal, but it could take several weeks.if
He said if the company isn't able to get into the site prior to closing, it could take eight to 12 weeks to become operational.