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Georgetown: Roots of recovery take hold on Front Street

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown’s fire-ravaged block may be out of sight, but it’s not out of mind.

The city erected a 6-foot wooden fence this week to block the view of what has become known as “The Burn” in the 700 block of Front Street. Mayor Jack Scoville said the fence may have to come down if City Council accepts an offer from a property owner to lease the middle six lots for a park while he waits on market conditions to improve.

What to do about the view of the scarred block is complicated, just like the recovery from the fire on Sept. 25, 2013, that claimed eight historic buildings bordering the Harborwalk. There are signs that downtown Georgetown is on the mend. The new Townhouse Restaurant across from the fire site is bustling. Townhouse owner Wendy Goude has lured some of the clientele from the defunct Rice Paddy restaurant back to the 700 block of Front Street. The juxtaposition of a thriving new restaurant and part of a block that has been fallow for two years is not lost on Scoville.

The fire scene has been a puzzle of government restrictions and insurance settlements. Rubble from the fire remained on the lots for months when asbestos was discovered. A state grant provided funding to replace the sidewalks and streetlights, but some members of Georgetown City Council were loathe to provide public money to stabilize bulkheads on the harbor side.

Couple the fire recovery with the closing of Georgetown’s steel mill, and the city has a lot of waterfront property sitting idle. “It’s good and bad,” Scoville said. “The steel mill presents a great opportunity. That’s how we’re looking at it. We don’t know at this point what’s going to happen there. The mayor said city council members may decide today on a proposal to sod most of “The Burn” and turn it into a park for the next few years.

Steve Timmons has acquired the six center lots from other owners and offered to lease the land to the city as a park. Timmons has hauled in dirt to level the ground and rebuilt a substantial deck bordering the Harborwalk. He said he will be finished within days, and the city could move in with grass, benches and railings before the Wooden Boat Show in October. Timmons would get relief from both city and county property taxes for the length of the agreement while he waits on the business climate to improve.

“While this may not be the ideal solution for this property, it is better than what we have right now,” said Johnny Weaver, who is Timmons’ “point man” for the property and took the proposal to city council in August.

Scoville thinks the park proposal has a chance of winning approval. “We hate to lose a little bit of money,” he said, “but it’s probably worth it to the city long term.”

The park idea comes along just days after the city’s housing and community development department and Keep Georgetown Beautiful put up a 6-foot wooden fence in front of the burned area. Scoville said the fence could come down if the park is approved.

Two property owners said this week they are planning to rebuild. Jeanette Ard, owner of the flower and gift shop Colonial Floral Fascinations, said she is ready to begin construction on her 25-foot lot beside the South Carolina Maritime Museum. She has all her permits and is ready to drive pilings as soon as she gets approval of her design from the city Architectural Review Board.

Tee Miller, who owns the lot at the other end, said he and his father, Goudy, plan to rebuild for their business Goudelock & Co. Their second building on Front Street survived the fire and houses Black Mingo Outfitters.

“If you look at Georgetown as a whole,” Scoville said, “we are doing pretty good. Restaurants and retail have picked up a whole lot. We’ve gotten some negative press as the poorest city in South Carolina. That’s one of the problems we have. The Housing Authority won’t put low-income housing anywhere except in a municipality in order to get the police and fire protection. That clusters a lot of low-income people in the city limits, which skews the data in a poor way. Look at greater Georgetown and there’s a lot of growth to the north, south and west. The community is thriving even though looking at specific income levels you might think differently.”

Scoville said a potential boutique hotel in the city didn’t work out, but another group is interested. “I’m very encouraged by that,” he said. “By next summer, we could have construction under way.”

More business is coming to the 900 block of Front Street, where owners of business lost to the fire relocated. Developers Rodney Long and Dwayne Christian sold their four lots in the 700 block of Front to Timmons to concentrate on the 900 block. They have leased space to two restaurants. DeAngelo’s Italian Restaurant is coming to the space next to Rainey Park near the old Custom’s House and the Kaminski House Museum, and Groucho’s Deli will open its second location nearby.

Long said he’s looking for the right dealer of furniture or antiques for the bigger spaces still available. “We’ve had heaps of calls,” he said. “We are just being a little picky with who we put back there.” Long said Buzz’s Roost is thriving in its new location, and he’s trying to find a reason to build more docks off the Harborwalk.

Marshall’s Marine is building a new boat showroom at Church and Cannon streets. A major landscape project is coming to Broad Street, making it a more welcoming entrance to downtown. The street, and many others in the city, will be repaved with funds from an additional penny sales tax in the county over the next seven years.

Long would like to see more thought given to the intersection of Front and Fraser streets now that the steel mill is closed. “When you come in Broad Street, you’ve got to go left or right on Front. If you come by the steel mill, you get a chance to see the whole street. It would give the city a chance to make a statement down there with a big lighted fountain and maybe some palmetto trees.”

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