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The road to recovery

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

After an eight-month dormancy, Georgetown’s Front Street is putting out new buds.

Most businesses displaced by a fire in the 700 block last September relocated to the down-at-the-heels 900 block and brought some vitality with them last fall. Though they are operating in smaller spaces, shop and restaurant owners say things are going well.

The owners of four of the burned buildings have purchased two big brick structures on the harbor side of the 900 block and plan to bring back Buzz’s Roost, Michael Miller’s popular bar and restaurant that burned. There is interest in the other spaces, said co-owner Rodney Long, from some “heavy hitters in the hospitality industry” who would like to come to Georgetown.

“Georgetown has the most unique waterfront on the entire Eastern Seaboard,” Long said. “Nowhere can you have commercial, residential and your 60-foot sport fisher 15 feet away. Think about Beaufort, Savannah, Charleston. You are walking across the street or in a condo complex. This is a very unique strip. I’ve only been here since 2002, but I see it. I’m afraid that people take for granted how beautiful it actually is.”

Long says he and partners Dwayne Christen and Steve Timmons believe in Georgetown’s vitality. “We wouldn’t have bought those buildings if we didn’t,” he said. “They are in awful condition after sitting so long and need so much work. They are gigantic and hard to lease, but we’ve had a fantastic amount of interest in them.”

Long said he and his partners are being picky about their tenants. “My hope is that the 900 block gets full on both sides of the street and by the time the 700 block works itself out there will be demand that will hopefully support buildings those buildings to the new guidelines. We’re doing everything we can to keep things going on Front Street. While the 700 block is devastating, it doesn’t need to be the end. It needs to be the beginning. It was a horrific tragedy. It could turn out to be a turning point for Front Street.”

Long said his first tenant, a consignment shop called Green Bean, is “wildly successful” and feels Miller will recapture his vibe on a new deck facing the Sampit River and in view of the Kaminski House. “He was very good for Front Street,” Long said. “He had a killer business. We’ve done everything in our power to keep him hanging around. Other cities have been vying for him to go there. We’re happy that he has remained in Georgetown, and I think it’s going to be good for everybody.”

John Cranston, who owns the 700 restaurant with partner Pete Scalise, said his customers have been very supportive following the fire that claimed their first restaurant, Zest. The 700 menu is a tribute to other businesses lost or affected by the fire. There’s a Limpin’ Jane sandwich, a Colonial salad and Doodlebug and Clock Tower pizzas. Cranston said the space in the 900 block was his best option even though it’s half the size and not on the water.

Ginger Gray, owner of the children’s shop Doodlebugs, said she plans to stay in the 900 block. A lot of her customers visit from out of town and asked around to find the shop after it moved.

Rhodes Miller, owner of Black Mingo Outfitters in the 700 block of Front Street, says her April sales were better than last year. “So far,” she said, “it’s been fine for us. We definitely miss the restaurant traffic, but we’ve been OK.”

Black Mingo Outfitters was the first building saved on the eastern side of the fire. Across the street, Susan Sanders opened Harbor Shop just a few months before the fire. She said it’s hard to find out what’s going on with the property now that the rubble has been removed. The city of Georgetown has hired an architectural firm to present a plan for the renovations. But the streetlights haven’t been replaced and the 700 block goes dark after sundown, discouraging window shoppers.

Framing the rubble with Black Mingo Outfitters is the S.C. Maritime Museum. Firemen soaked the walls and roof to prevent it from burning, and once the smoky smell was gone the building was fine. The museum was hosting a brainstorming session last week as Andy Kovan of Brandon Advertising talked to residents and business owners to get ideas for a city re-branding and marketing campaign.

Front Street needs to become a destination, said David Kossove, owner of Augustus and Carolina furniture. Georgetown attracts an older crowd because of its affordability and quality of life, said Graham Osteen, who lives on Prince Street and works at the Sumter Item. An amphitheater on Goat Island, a general store and a hotel were ideas tossed out for the future. Potential businesses have to be concerned about seasonability and demographics, Kossove said. The real attraction, Kovan said he heard, was that Georgetown is genuine with residents who care about each other.

Georgetown has some serious problems to solve before it can really move forward, Long said. Restaurants are required to put their garbage cans on the Front Street sidewalks late in the afternoon for pickup overnight.

“It’s just the small things,” he said. “Customers have to smell the restaurant juice in the middle of the street.” Long said the steel mill at the gateway to downtown presents a bad first impression as does the drainage collection pool across the street at City Hall.

“I think what they are doing is good. Don’t get me wrong,” Long said. “Say we go down there and build eight beautiful, fantastic buildings. You will have to ride by the mill dust and dirt and the cesspool and the green trash cans. It’s hard to get motivated to really pursue something there when there are other towns across the state that know you’ve lost buildings and they are saying, ‘Hey, come here and do something.’ That’s part of the distraction. You want to focus on Front Street.”

Long said he asked potential tenants of his 900 block buildings to meet him at his Po Boys restaurant supply business on Highway 17 so they could enter the town by St. James Street and the steel mill wouldn’t be their first impression of Front Street. “First impressions mean everything,” Long said, “and our first impressions are just brutal.”

Federal regulations are dictating the schedule of rebuilding in the 700 block. Long said the city of Georgetown has a two-year exemption to permit new buildings without all the federal red tape. “By the time it gets figured out,” Long said, “that two-year permit is going to be gone. The permitting will be years and years. As days go by, opportunity to just deal with the city on permitting is slipping away. I tell you, I feel like if that fire had happened in any other town we would have been rebuilding. We are eight months in and we’re doing feasibility studies.”

After losing everything, fire victim ready to give back

John Walters escaped the Front Street fire in Georgetown last September a changed man.

“Everything is as it should be,” Walters said. “It’s a process. I know I get up every day and work hard to try and give back to the community. I feel obligated to my community for the first time in my life, making the area around me a bit better.”

Walters, owner of Witsel Art, paid a visit to his nephew’s class at Coastal Montessori Charter School last week. Teacher Heather Teems said her students collected money and recyclable wood for Walters after he lost everything in the fire, including his dog.

“John has made many changes since the fire with help from not only my class but many other generous locals and people from far away,” Teems said. “He has a new studio apartment, still on Front Street, and now has a beautiful new Australian shepherd to keep him company. He is displaying his art and working with the local shops in Georgetown as well as, Ebb and Flow in Murrels Inlet, and reaching all the way to Beaufort at the Thibault Gallery.”

To thank the students and their parents, Walters visited their classroom and painted butterflies with materials he provided.

Walters said he doesn’t want to be defined by the fire. “Life has been full of difficulties,” he said. “They make you a better man. People look at me and see that they can excel and do better and rise from the ashes. I don’t want people to be defined by a difficult situation. I want to instill that in a few people who look up to me. I want to attempt to be a good role model.”

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