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Economy: Panel says mill site no longer a draw to industry

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Land use experts said a new county library on the site of a defunct steel mill in Georgetown would help bring private investors to the remainder of the property.

Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said that’s not an unreasonable request to transform 150 acres of waterfront property that includes the ArcelorMittal mill and the under-performing state port. The panel reported on its post-industrial vision for Georgetown after spending last week talking to citizens and examining the property. The 10 development specialists advised the county to forget about dredging the port and use the opportunity to change the region’s economic fortunes. They said the public sector had to put the “first stake in the ground” to encourage the private sector to invest. A library and a new Georgetown City Hall along with green space called Georgetown Common was envisioned at the corner of Front and Fraser streets.

Hemingway said Georgetown County Council will consider what to do with the $6 million raised by an additional one-cent sales tax earmarked for port dredging. He didn’t think those dollars would go toward a new main branch library because voters wanted the jobs that dredging the port would bring. He said an investment in industrial infrastructure like high-speed internet, natural gas lines or rail service would be more likely.

Alex Rose, chairman of the ULI panel, said a mixed-use development featuring public green spaces and access to the water would be an economic game-changer for a city where the median income lags the county’s by almost $13,000.

“The very size of the land involved, the complexity of its history and ownership and the physical, economic and social challenges and opportunities facing Georgetown dictate the need for a thoughtful and far-looking vision process, plan and resources,” he said. “Cities with more experience in these circumstances with far greater resources struggle with these types of tasks. They are not easy.”

Following the panel’s recommendation would require an about-face by the county, state and federal governments on dredging the port. South Carolina and the State Ports Authority had pledged money, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice had been working in Congress on funds. Two factors hurt the port’s chances. The Army Corps of Engineers raised its estimate of the cost to dredge it from $32 million to more than $60 million, and the steel mill’s closing reduced the port’s tonnage to a trickle. It had two of its worst months in July and August.

Rose said similar redevelopments are taking place throughout the country and the world. “Economic growth does not start with an elusive employer suddenly arriving with hundreds of jobs,” he said. It will be up to the city and county to put the “first stakes in the ground” at the corner of Front and Fraser streets, he said. A new city hall and public library near a green space designated as Georgetown Common would provide the leadership to start a ripple effect. “That is what’s essential for the private sector to make the major portion of the investment over time,” Rose said, “and provide the capital needed to make transformational change.”

Panel member Ken Kay said one of the benefits of building first at the corner of Front and Fraser is that it would encourage motorists to enter the downtown and stop. “Right now,” Kay said, “it takes you a while to get to Front Street where something is happening.”

The panel recommended transforming South Fraser Street into a gateway with landscaping and entrances to the steel mill property via existing streets that divide it into city blocks. Panelist Kathleen Rose said landscaping would create a sense that “you are in Georgetown” and mixed use development on both sides of South Fraser Street would be more attractive and reduce the speed of traffic.

Kay said the plan was a framework that builds on the strength of the community. He said Georgetown is a very walkable, friendly town. “This happens to be an industrial site that has had its day. Now is a golden opportunity to take the walls down and open it up,” he said. “South Fraser Street should be a grand boulevard where the water is visible. The downtown boardwalk should be expanded. Everything here should connect to a working waterfront.”

By breaking down the steel mill’s wall along South Fraser Street, Kay said, people from the West End would be allowed access to the site and be part of the redevelopment. Panelists heard from several speakers early last week that the West End community wanted to share in the benefits of a post-industrial Georgetown. Using the existing railroad tracks as a multi-use path would further open the property to the public, transportation expert Don Edwards said.

The panel’s vision also included turning the port property into a University Village research facility with housing to attract families. Kathleen Rose said there is a correlation between education, job growth and income. She suggested getting Clemson, the University of South Carolina, Coastal Carolina and Horry-Georgetown Technical College together to begin a conversation about improving education, job training and opportunities for the community. “This is economic gardening,” she said, “growing from within.”

A critical part in shaping a new identity is how Georgetown exercises control of the property, panel members said. The port property will be easier to manage than the 62-acre steel mill site, they concluded. “The panel believes there are pathways to control the steel mill portion of the site, if that’s what the community decides to do,” Alex Rose said. “However, the vision and objectives and tasks are not dependent on actual ownership. Focus on the objectives. By exercising its land use powers or through ownership or a combination of both the Georgetown community has the responsibility and the power to shape the site. Seize the opportunity is our message to you. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the identity and future of Georgetown for yourself, your children and grandchildren.”

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