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Front Street fire: One year later, scars remain amidst the bustle

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said he got the call at 10 till 6 in the morning a year ago today: “Get down here as fast as you can,” Fire Chief Joey Tanner said. “Front Street is on fire.”

Georgetown made national news with a fire that destroyed most of the harbor side of the 700 block of Front Street. It could have been worse, Scoville said. “The chief told me that we were probably going to lose the entire block and would be lucky to save the town clock and the Rice Museum,” the mayor said. “Everything between Lafayette Park at the town clock and Francis Marion Park is probably going to burn and the fire could jump the street.”

The flames were being driven by a stiff wind from the southeast, the worst possible weather scenario, Scoville said. With dawn the wind abated, and fire trucks and manpower arrived from Midway, Murrells Inlet-Garden City, Andrews and from as far away as Kingstree.

Seven buildings were destroyed, and Gov. Nikki Haley called on South Carolina residents to contribute to a fund to assist the displaced when she surveyed the damage the day after the fire. Gifts surpassed $210,000, and a group of volunteers disbursed the money directly to fire victims.

Today, on the anniversary of the fire, the 700 block shows the scars. The eastern wall of the S.C. Maritime Museum and the western wall of Goudelocks — both were firewalls — are blackened but standing. With the rubble removed, the fire site is a wasteland that tourists come to gawk at along the Harborwalk.

“Front Street, the Historic District and the city itself is bouncing back,” said Al Joseph, president of the Georgetown Business Association. “We are still moving forward. There’s not a stopping point. The fire was awful, devastating. We have grown from it and will continue to do so.”

The healing began with last year’s Wooden Boat Show, an event that won a state tourism award. There will be a gathering today at Francis Marion Park at 6 p.m. to acknowledge the tragedy of the fire and celebrate the recovery.

“We lost eight businesses,” Joseph said, “and here we are a year later. Seven of the eight have relocated, and we’ve added 12 more. That’s such a huge statement for Georgetown.”

Scoville said the “silver lining” is that the 900 block of Front Street has been rejuvenated and the city center has shifted to the 800 block. The city is beginning a project to refurbish Broad Street as the new entrance to the business district with planted medians and fresh paving between Front and Church streets.

The new tenant on Front Street likely to have the biggest impact on traffic will be Coastal Carolina University.

“They are really making an investment in Georgetown,” Joseph said. Coastal Carolina opened in a small space with docks for its vessels in the 900 block of Front Street in the spring. Georgetown County bought the building Coastal was leasing along with an adjoining two-story building and agreed to an eight-year $1.25-million lease this month. “This was just the first step,” Joseph said. “They were going to do more, add programs, people, opportunities. We’ve already seen that happen. They are going to bring the marine biology doctorate program here. They are really expanding.”

Progress seems to be stalled on rebuilding in the 700 block but the clock is ticking. Scoville said two issues could drive the decision-making. Once insurance settlements are made, property owners have a limited amount of time to reinvest in property before profits become subject to taxes. He said he would have to study that some more. The second, and larger issue, is that permits to rebuild in a flood zone become more complicated after another year of inactivity.

“We’ve written to the governor asking for guidance,” Scoville said. “Right now we are looking to the property owners to lead the charge and tell us what they want.”

The city made efforts to coordinate rebuilding but was unsuccessful once the lots were cleared. Scoville said a Charleston engineering firm was selected to study the site and make a proposal but some members of City Council expressed disinterest and the property owners didn’t want to contribute financially. “That,” he said, “put the ball in the property owners’ court.”

Scoville said there was talk of up to $1 million in state funds, but that was to restore public infrastructure: the street lights, fire hydrants, sidewalk, Harborwalk and repaving Front Street.

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