Admin details aired in forum

WINNSBORO – If people left a recent Mt. Zion Institute forum with reservations, it wasn’t due to a lack of information about the proposed project.

Fairfield County Council members, staff and the developer spent two hours Thursday evening addressing residents’ questions about the project during a forum at Midlands Tech-Fairfield Campus.

If built, the $11.5 million project would repurpose the Mt. Zion property into a new county administration building. It would stand three stories tall and span 45,000 square feet, more than double the current 21,000-square-foot structure. The total cost to the county would be about $8 million over seven years.

“We’d like this to be the first of many revitalization efforts in Winnsboro and Fairfield County,” said Rory Dowling with 1st & Main, a Raleigh, North Carolina firm working with the county on the project.

If approved, construction could start as soon as April 2019 and be completed by summer 2020.

“I think it’s going to be a fantastic asset once it’s completed,” Dowling said. “We hope to have this agreement in place shortly.”

Earlier this month, council voted to approve second read ing of the project following an executive session discussion.

“If you really and truly want growth, there’s going to be changes. Folks say they want it, but some of them pull back on it a little bit,” said Council Chairman Billy Smith. “You’ve got to have a little vision to make it grow; things don’t happen on their own.”

Sixty-four questions – all submitted by only 12 people – were answered at Thursday night’s forum.

An informal drop-in meeting, which included renderings of the proposed project, preceded the forum.

One by one, county staff drew citizen questions from a fish bowl. Questions ranged from the cost of renovating the existing county building to what will happen to it if a new building is constructed.

In response to one question, Dowling pledged that 1st & Main wouldn’t build multi-family housing on the site should the county building project fall through.

County leaders said a deed restriction prohibiting multi-family housing could be built into the contract. The property itself isn’t zoned for that, either.

“Our zoning doesn’t allow for it to be used for multi-family and we would never use it for that,” County Administrator Jason Taylor said. “Our only use would be as an administration building.”

Council members, some of whom have remained silent about Mt. Zion, spoke up at Thursday’s meeting.

Councilman Cornelius Robinson expressed concerns about the fate of a monument at the Mt. Zion property, but also voiced optimism for the project’s potential.

“It would just add value to the neighborhood,” Robinson said, comparing the project’s potential to a similar one that helped revitalize Greer.

Councilman Dan Ruff, who’s abstained from previous votes while searching for more information, said he’s also interested in the monument.

“I would like to address this in some form,” he said.

Ruff and other council members said there’s no Plan B for the property if an administration building isn’t built there.

“If we can’t make this happen, nothing is ever going to happen on that property, so you might as well tear it down,” Ruff said. “Folks need to consider that as well, what might happen after demolition.”

A big point of discussion revolved around money.

Responding to a question about alternate options, County Administrator Jason Taylor said renovating the existing administration building would be north of $8.5 million.

About half of the cost would come from housing county staff at a temporary facility during renovations. It would also cost several hundred thousand dollars in additional taxpayer money to solicit bids, county officials said.

Although Mt. Zion would appear more costly at $11.5 million, a majority of that amount would be paid for with tax credits. The remaining $3 million to $4 million would come from lease payments stretched out seven years.

“We’re essentially getting an $11-$12 million dollar project for $8 million,” Taylor said.

Council members fielded several questions about the potential of default, either by the county or 1st & Main. Smith said the larger issue would be the cost of inaction.

“I don’t think default is an option. The biggest problem isn’t what’s going to happen to this property, it’s where in the heck are these people going to work?” Smith said. “I don’t think they want to work on the street. I don’t care if we have one employee, they have to have a place to work.”

Council discussed finalizing the project in executive session Monday night during the council meeting, but the third and final vote isn’t expected for at least another two weeks.

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