Council votes 5-2 to renovate Mt. Zion for Administration Building

WINNSBORO  – It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, but there still was plenty of suspense at Monday night’s Fairfield County Council meeting.

Council members gave final reading to an ordinance authorizing the county to move forward with an $11.5 million plan to build a new government center at the site of the former Mt. Zion Institute.

Though the announced vote was 5-2, Councilman Cornelius Robinson said after the meeting that he abstained (an abstention is recorded as a yes vote according to the Council’s bylaws).

“I believe in this project but I couldn’t convince many of my constituents that it was good thing for the county. Rather than vote no I abstained,” Robinson said.

Council members Douglas Pauley and Mikel Trapp voted against the ordinance.

Trapp didn’t comment on the Mt. Zion project from the dais.

Pauley, one of two holdouts during first and second reading, said he previously abstained so he could gather more information. He expressed concerns about cost.

“Fairfield County is in possession of 80 or more county maintained buildings,” he said. “Adding one more to it would definitely add more cost to the county.”

Councilman Dan Ruff, the other council member who previously abstained, said he remained undecided as recently as Monday morning.

Ruff said he had concerns about traffic and a monument on the property, but ultimately voted yes, saying he didn’t see a better plan to remediate the woes with the County’s current government building. He also thinks it’ll be an economic boost to Winnsboro.

“This has been a very, very tough decision for me,” Ruff said. “This morning I was still very uncertain, back and forth. This to me isn’t ideal, but I haven’t seen a better solution”

The proposal calls for repurposing the Mt. Zion campus into a new government complex. More than half of the funding would come from state and federal tax credits associated with the property.

Once complete, the new complex would be more than double the size of the existing admin building, encompassing nearly 45,000 square feet.

No plans have been announced for what would become of the existing county building.

Ten people signed up to speak specifically about Mt. Zion during public input time Monday night, with a majority of those speaking supportively and urging the council to vote yes.

Claudia Cathcart, the first person to speak, noted that Fairfield County has been struggling to keep jobs.

Council members supporting the repurposing of Mt. Zion have said plans for the new government complex could help increase foot traffic in downtown Winnsboro, and help offset losses after the recent closure of Walmart, as well as the failed nuclear project at V.C. Summer.

Element recently announced it would cut more than 100 jobs, citing Trump administration tariffs, before reconsidering, adding further uncertainty in Fairfield County.

“We’ve had some bad luck in the county,” Cathcart said. “Now is the chance to overcome some bad thoughts. Please vote yes for this project.”

Also supporting the Mt. Zion proposal was Joan Cumbee.

“This is the least expensive and most energy efficient option,” Cumbee said. “It is the only option that will not require a tax increase to do needed repair work.

“The claim that all neighbors are opposed is not true,” she added. “I live in the neighborhood and nobody asked my opinion.”

Winnsboro resident Susan Taylor touted economic benefits the project would bring.

“This is a plan that our county can afford,” Taylor said. “It’s the only plan that our county can afford. I believe that the refurbishment of these buildings would bring property values up.”

Not all supported the plan, however.

Dr. Marie Rosborough, a frequent critic of the Mt. Zion plan, once again voiced her opposition.

“Your budget has increased $13 million over the past three years,” Rosborough said. “That concerns me. Exactly how did you come up with these figures? So many people support your effort if you don’t live next door.”

In the end, however, council members approved third reading following a discussion in executive session.

Right before the vote, Council Chairman Billy Smith, who has pushed in favor of the project since its first proposal, took note of the considerable dialogue the Mt. Zion plan has received.

“That’s the most involvement I’ve seen us have on any issue,” he said, adding, “I hope the involvement continues.” Reached after the meeting for comment on the proposal’s advancement, Smith said, “I’m glad council had the vision to take advantage of such a rare opportunity as this. I think it gives us a shot at revitalizing Winnsboro and making the first step of turning things around. There’s risk in everything that ends up good and I acknowledge that, but if this is successful, in two years, we’ll look back and know we made the right decision. Then in 10 years, we’ll be known across the state for it as a model for others to follow.”

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