County gingerly pursues Mt. Zion

WINNSBORO – Before going into executive session Monday evening to discuss a contractual matter concerning a Memorandum of Understanding and proposed deed agreement between the County and the Town of Winnsboro aimed at renovating Mt. Zion for use as County office space, County Administrator Jason Taylor laid out the sticking point. To go forward with the project, Council would have to allow Taylor to sign a deed requiring the County to accept Mt. Zion from the developer should the renovation project prove, in the end, not to be feasible.

During the first public comment period, residents Shirley Green and Yvette Howard urged Council not to accept the deed to Mt. Zion. Their myriad reasons included: that the project would be wrought with challenges, that a Confederate monument faces the main entrance to the complex on College Street; that protests to the monument would be a major hindrance to economic development and that moving the County’s administration building would blight the Mill Village.

Taylor readily addressed the monument, saying the Town had agreed the confederate monument could be moved. When pressed for assurance of that, Taylor said he would have a document drawn up to request the Town to sign, giving up the monument at the same time he signed the deed.

Councilman Billy Smith said that while the Heritage Act, a S.C. statute, prohibits public bodies from moving monuments of any kind, there is no prescribed penalty for them doing so. Smith also said the property where the monument stands, which is separate from the Mt. Zion grounds, could also be transferred to 1st and Main, a private company seemingly not governed by the statute. And if, in the end, Smith said, the project does not move forward and the building must be demolished, the County will still own the land.

Taylor addressed the more pressing issue for the County.

“It has long been known that at some point in the near future, the County must address the need to improve and provide additional space for both the Courthouse, Sheriff and administrative functions,” Taylor said.

He said rehabbing the existing administration building would cost an estimated $2.5 million just to replace the roof and all the mechanical systems. He cited problems with the building including near-waterfalls down the back stairs during hard rains. That $2.5 million would not include more space or replacing an antiquated, possibly unrepairable HVAC system that, Taylor said, could go anytime. Taylor said it would cost $17 million to build a new courthouse on Congress Street, then relocate much of the courthouse staff to it before beginning renovation of the existing courthouse.

“With the abandonment of the two nuclear reactors,” Taylor said, “we cannot afford that. Renovating either the administration building or Courthouse, we are looking at considerable disruption to operations and significant cost associated with temporality relocating staff and services while the work is being done.”

Taylor said repurposing Mt. Zion’s school building poses a solution. He said it would increase the County’s office space by 10,000 square feet, cost less than renovating current offices and help revitalize downtown Winnsboro. He said a previous study commissioned by the County identified Mt. Zion as a catalyst for redevelopment, saying it would help improve the community and spur new growth.

“To explore this possibility, we began working with 1st and Main Development, a company that specializes in historic renovation and reuse,” Taylor said. “They have a successful track record of using historic tax credits to affordably redevelop old buildings. With their expertise and taking advantage of the tax credits, they can [renovate] the building far cheaper than we could.”

“The County’s lease agreement (rent-to-own) with 1st and Main would allow us to get the space we need in a timely manner and at a price that would not burden our budget or preclude our ability to pursue other important economic development and community projects,” Taylor said.

After a lengthy executive session Monday night, however, Council seemed no closer to reaching an agreement on signing the deed.

“There was no vote on the deed tonight because, collectively, we need a couple questions and concerns more fully addressed before making a decision,” Smith told The Voice following the meeting.

“These concerns are mainly centered on the nearby confederate soldier monument and what the State’s short-sighted Heritage Act does and does not allow pertaining to monuments on public grounds,” Smith said. “As long as all involved parties remain interested after the County is able to gain more information on these matters, the Council does plan to hold an up or down vote on the proposed deed agreement.”