One year later, Georgetown still divided over Front Street Fire recovery
GEORGETOWN, SC (WMBF) - One year ago today, Georgetown suffered one of the costliest disasters in that city's history: a fire that leveled the center of the town's historic waterfront district. Because the buildings that burned were the focal point of tourism in the historic city, it seemed a guarantee that rebuilding would begin immediately.
The truth is, this tragedy has done little more than expose a historic divide in South Carolina's second oldest city.
As for the fire, it was the absolute worst of all worst case scenarios, the very center of the historic waterfront was on fire. One century-old building after another was consumed until an entire city block, mainstay businesses, restaurants and apartments lay in ruin.
The good news for Georgetown is that all but one of the businesses lost to the flames has relocated a block or two up the road. The bad news for nearby shop and restaurant owners like Susan Sanders is that, one year later, the massive hole on Front Street is still a massive hole on Front Street.
Sanders was still planning the grand opening of her clothing and gift shop directly across the street when fate and fire changed everything.
"I had invested in a building in the busiest block on this street," she says. "And I knew that had immediately changed."
And it did. The most photographed, most visited, most popular end of town would have to be rebuilt. The local state delegation was ready to help. The Governor was walking the site within 48 hours, and the city and property owners were ready to turn this disaster into opportunity. Even former state senator, now, Lt. Governor Yancey McGill was ready to put his considerable political clout behind the effort. The city was even granted special permitting privileges that could save time and a lot of money in the rebuilding process, if they could break ground within 24 months.
However, all that momentum appears to have been lost. All efforts to get the city and property owners together on a unified plan have failed. Even Yancey McGill's office said he has nothing more to add, and thinks the city and property owners should work it out themselves.
That's appearing unlikely.
"I think what is the most disturbing thing to me is that it's us against the city," says Rodney Long, one of the property owners who lost a building to the Front Street fire.
Long is invested in four of the properties that burned that day. He wants to rebuild, but at today's costs, and given both state and federal codes surrounding waterfront construction, it makes no financial sense unless the city steps in.
Engineers say what this waterfront site must have today is a flood-proof foundation; basically a gigantic swimming pool with a slab on top for the property owners to begin rebuilding. The cost of that foundation is right at $1 million.
Property owners say, if the foundation could be built using disaster aid funds, the cost of rebuilding the businesses would be more in line with rents in Georgetown. Without the foundation, no one can afford to break ground on so much as a patio. Long insists the city needs to consider the benefits of having those businesses back on the tax rolls.
"It all comes back to return on investment," Long says. "What would be good for the city? Is it good for the city for that hole to be there?"
Long and other property owners believe the city council and mayor are missing the point, and missing an opportunity that would give Georgetown that return on investment in record time.
One of the examples property owners use as proof the city doesn't understand return on investment is the East Bay Park Boat landing. It was completed less than a year ago at a cost of $750,000. It gets a lot of use, by local boaters and local fishermen. To pin down what this investment is returning to the city would be difficult at best. But property owners insist that's not the case when you add shops, restaurant and residences along historic Front Street.
"By the time you get a couple restaurants, all the buildings back, the property tax, all the fees, everything that's associated with it, I think that return would come seven or eight years," insists Long.
Linda Abate owns the dress shop directly across the street from what is now a hole on Front Street. She knew fire would end up exposing an ugly and uncooperative side of her beloved city.
"We all cried together. It was the most horrific thing I've ever seen in my life," Linda says.
"I would think that it would be like herding cats, to try to get everybody together on the same page, with the same focus, with the same needs."
But what about the state delegation that stepped up right after the fire? Are there no funds available to help Georgetown rebuild?
Everyone you talk to in this town about the void on Front Street eventually ends up referencing the same promise of grant money that Georgetown is getting to begin the rebuilding here.
These were the governor's exact words two days after the fire when she paid a visit to the site: "I'm also going to sign an executive order that will allow the Department of Commerce to open up to a million dollars-worth of grants."
Yet here we are a year later, and no one in Georgetown, not the city government, not the property owners, has any idea how to access that money, who to contact about that money, what that money can be used for, or what strings might be attached.
It's almost as if the governor never spoke those words.
David Klugh contacted the Governor's office to ask about that Department of Commerce grant. That million dollar Community Development Block Grant is still sitting and waiting to be claimed. The mayor is convinced that money is not what the property owners need, anyway.
"If it's public money, the public money can't be spent on purely private property," says Mayor Scoville.
The truth is, the mayor has never asked the state about the money, and never questioned the Department of Commerce about how the money could be used. He and the Georgetown City Council are waiting for the property owner to make a move.
"City council at this point is looking primarily at the property owners to provide the leadership as to what direction to go in," says the Mayor. "And so far, they've not provided any cohesive organization."
No one has, and while the city waits for property owners, property owners wait for the city.
"Disaster money is used to assist private property owners in disasters," said property owner Jeanette Ard. "It's happened all over the county."
Jeanette Ard, herself a former city councilwoman, also owned one of the buildings that burned that day. She says the process has been complicated for no reason, and that the Mayor and city council just need to get the state money and put it to use.
"I'm just begging them to take that money and use it for the intended purpose," she says. "It's not city money. It's disaster relief money, and we have to remember that."
We spoke with the Department of Commerce about that million dollar Community Development Block Grant available to the city of Georgetown. They tell us the money is designed specifically for use on public property or for public benefit. Whether it could be used to build flood-proofing along the Georgetown waterfront is unclear, simply because no one has asked.
What many visitors to Historic Georgetown remember today is that there was a huge fire here one year ago, there is a huge hole here one year later, and there is a huge divide that could take years to rebuild.
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