Council OKs first Mt. Zion vote

Proposed Mt. Zion renovation

WINNSBORO – With Fairfield County stung by massive job losses and another 120 positions expected to vanish, development of a new $11.4 million county administration building aims to ease some of that pain.

Supporters also note tax credits would finance the majority of costs of renovating the Mt. Zion Institute site in Winnsboro, lowering the county’s costs to about $5M.

But a large number some residents opposing the plans fear it will threaten the property’s historical character and turn the area into a traffic nightmare.

“I applaud council finding alternative ways to funding this county council building. However this project is wrought with controversy,” said Ridgeway resident Shirley Green. “Let’s not court controversy. It’s the kind of controversy that pits our citizens against each other. An administrative building is not an economic driver.”

Winnsboro resident Bill Haslett, however, said revitalizing the Mt. Zion property would unite the county, not divide it.

“Fairfield County is not going to grow unless we take down the dividing line between Zion Hill and Mount Zion. Mt. Zion needs to be redeveloped,” he said. “We’ve had nothing but negative news in this county for the past six months and I’m tired of it. We need some positive news instead of people bickering back and forth.”

On Monday, Fairfield County Council voted 4-1 for first reading of an ordinance authorizing development of a new administration building, as well as a lease agreement associated with the project.

Councilman Mikel Trapp cast the lone dissenting vote. Council members Dan Ruff and Douglas Pauley abstained.

Trapp didn’t specifically why he voted against the ordinance, though during discussion of the proposed measure, he raised concerns about revenue sources and costs, which are not finite.

“Once that number changes, we’ll have to revote,” Trapp said.

Council Chairman Billy Smith said the county is “in the driver’s seat,” noting that the builder faces the most risk.

“I think the best way to structure it is to put the contractor at risk, not the county,” Smith said. “We’ve got two more readings to flush this out. We all know the first reading is procedural.”

Both Ruff and Pauley said they wanted more information before casting a vote.

“I just need a little more time to get information and feedback,” Ruff said.

Pauley asked for a lot more.

“The vote concerning the project is a very important vote and a vote I would not take lightly,” he said. “My reason for abstaining tonight, there are a few questions I’ll present to the county administrator before I make my decision.”

Pauley requested detailed information about the county’s outstanding debts, as well as alternative sites for the administration building.

“We can get that information together for you,” County Administrator Jason Taylor said.

Two more readings are required before the deal becomes official.

Rory Dowling with 1st & Main, a Durham, North Carolina firm working with the county, hopes that will be soon.

Dowling said he hopes an agreement can be finalized within 30 days, and to apply for a building permit by early 2019. The goal, he said, is to begin construction within 10 months, with a grand opening by April 2020.

As for spurring economic development, Dowling noted that the building would bring about 120 employees daily to downtown Winnsboro.

“When you have 120 people within walking distance, it helps keep the lights on at some of these establishments,” he said.

If constructed, the four-story structure would include 45,000 square feet of space, more than doubling the existing 21,000-square-foot administration building at 350 Columbia Road.

The new structure would house administrative offices, the sheriff’s office, a daycare center, and parks and recreation with a new gym. County council chambers would also move to the new building, making use of the old auditorium.

About half of the $11.5 project would come from a series of state and federal historic tax credits totaling $5.4 million.

Another $4.5 million would come in the form of a construction loan, as well as $1.1 million in equity from money 1st and Main would raise itself.

Dowling said he felt confident the tax credits would be awarded, but acknowledged there aren’t any guarantees.

“This is a tax credit program that’s geared toward a low income tax tract, which this is,” he said. “We hope to know more in October when some of these [organizations] receive some feedback on a federal level on whether they can expect some level of credits.”

This article was updated 8/20/18 at 3:06 p.m. to correct the county’s cost from $5K to $5M. 

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