Smith outlines new admin building costs

Winnsboro – Fairfield County isn’t promising that it’s a magic pill.

But local leaders do think the plan to repurpose the old Mt. Zion Institute site in Winnsboro into a new county administration building is as innovative as it is necessary.

“My biggest concern is if this project doesn’t go forward, there’s something that’s going to have to happen to resolve the issues with the current building,” County Chairman Billy Smith said Monday. “It’s got some problems I probably shouldn’t even tell you about.”

Smith estimates renovating the existing county building would cost at least $3 million. It would be ineligible for the tax credits for which the Mt. Zion site qualifies.

And Fairfield County’s borrowing capacity is virtually zero due to a $24 million bond issue it’s repaying. Smith added that other unspecified financial decisions by previous council members have further financially handcuffed the county.

“It boxed us in, in terms of what we can and can’t do,” he said. “This is a creative model that Fairfield County could probably win some type of award for. In no other way would this be feasible.”

Otherwise, county voters would have to “go vote on a referendum to raise their own taxes,” Smith added.

The plan to repurpose the Mt. Zion institute costs about $11.4 million, but a series of tax credits and private equity would cover more than half the cost.

Smith said interest free county lease payments would cover the rest.

Rory Dowling with 1st & Main, a Durham, North Carolina firm working with the county, outlined the two-part tax credit proposal at the Aug. 13 council meeting.

First, he said, the firm has already applied for state and federal historic tax credits.

The plan also calls for additional New Market Tax Credits. Dowling said 1st & Main has already received a letter of interest from the Community Affordable Housing Equity Corporation, or CAHEC, to provide the allocation.

Together the credits total $5.4 million. Dowling said repurposing Mt. Zion is a preferred project for CAHEC, but not a guarantee.

“It’s a very good sign, we hope to know more in October when some of these (Community Development Entities) receive some feedback on a federal level on whether they can expect some level of credits,” Dowling said regarding CAHEC’s interest. “We take these tax credits and sell them to a third party at a discount, which then finances the project.”

An additional $1.1 million in equity has been pledged by 1st & Main, leaving about $4.5 million, totaling $11 million.

“We do expect that to come down. This is a starting number,” Dowling said. “By our modeling, we think this is going to save the county $3.5 million over a 20-year period. It significantly reduces your payments.”

As it stands, a majority of council supports the plan. The council voted 4-1 for first reading of an ordinance authorizing construction of a new administration building, as well as a lease agreement associated with the project.

Council members Dan Ruff and Douglas Pauley abstained, each signaling they wanted more information before committing to a vote. Councilman Mikel Trapp opposed the ordinance.

Economic development has become the rallying cry for those supporting the Mt. Zion plan. Several residents speaking during public input last Monday night expressed that support by invoking the looming loss of 126 jobs at Element Electronics.

Those who oppose the plans do so for various reasons.

Some cite a confederate monument that stands on the far corner of the green as the reason they do not want Mt. Zion renovated.

Others cite cost.

County resident Jana Childers said she prefers repurposing another existing building, such as the Wal-Mart that recently shut down. But that building is outside of the downtown.

Smith said he understands the criticisms of investing in government owned property.

But he also noted that the county’s approximately 120 employees must eat and shop as well, and nesting the new county building close to shops and restaurants does provide a benefit.

“To have those folks be in such close distance where they could walk to (downtown businesses,) it would be huge for a town like Winnsboro,” Smith said. “It’s a hassle to get into your car and drive somewhere.”

As envisioned, the proposed 45,000-square-foot building would more than double the county’s existing 21,000-square-foot structure.

Administrative offices, the sheriff’s office, a daycare center and parks and recreation with a new gym would move into the new building. County council chambers would move there as well.

Second reading is scheduled for the council’s Aug. 27 meeting. A public hearing on the building proposal is likely.

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