Post and Courier
August 28, 2014

Tourism-dependent Georgetown worried after downtown fire

Posted: 09/26/2013 12:01 a.m.
Updated: 09/26/2013 08:38 a.m.


By Schuyler Kropf

GEORGETOWN — Mary Beth Brawley shared her home with one of the stray cats known to hang out by the town's iconic clock tower.

Early Wednesday morning, Gray Girl started uncharacteristically jumping on the bed, prompting Brawley to look out from her apartment above the Sampit River. The glow over the water turned crackling orange, with flames reaching up to 40 feet in the air.

“The smoke was so strong we couldn't see to get down the steps,” Brawley said of making her escape with a neighbor. “We couldn't breathe.”

City leaders are still assessing their downtown recovery plan after fire swept through seven buildings, some of historic value, in the heart of the Front Street tourist district.

While no human injuries were reported — a stray cat died in the fire — about one-half a block of businesses, apartments, shops and restaurants between Screven and Broad streets, along with collections of retail art work, are believed to be a near-total loss.

Damage estimates ranged wildly, but the conservative early figure was between $1 million and $6 million.

The blaze also raises long-term questions about what will happen to the tourism draw needed to support the block's quaint waterfront, which is frequented by coastal visitors on the way to Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

Georgetown is South Carolina's third-oldest city, with a geography and history that largely mirrors Charleston, its larger neighbor to the South. Both port cities were captured by the British, and thrived on rice plantations and shipping before seeing their economies decimated by the Civil War.

During the 20th century, both sought rebirth by capitalizing on their historic legacies, although Georgetown's oldest neighborhood was overshadowed by nearby paper and steel mills. Still, the charm of Front Street has proved to be one of the city's more popular draws.

Mayor Jack Scoville said the city will go forward with both its wooden boat festival Oct. 19 and a 10K run. He estimated at least 125 jobs were lost, including those at a restaurant that employed more than 40 people.

Also gone, for at least the short term, are the thousands of dollars in retail and hospitality tax revenue that Georgetown depends on.

“It's going to be significant,” Scoville said. “I came down here at about six this morning and we were very concerned about losing the entire block.

“To say this was a catastrophe, that would be accurate.”

Gov. Nikki Haley will tour the damage today.

Most of the community alarm had died down by midday though white clouds of smoke continued to billow from hot spots as fire crews drenched the area with water. Parts of Front Street remained blocked off by yellow police tape and piles of bricks lay in a jumble where walls and buildings once stood, leaving only facades and shells. Hundreds of people had come down to watch the aftermath. The smell of acrid smoke hung in the air and clung to the clothes of bystanders.

The origin of the fire remains under investigation but is believed to be focused around the waterside deck of the Limpin' Jane's Old South Eatery and Tap Room. State Law Enforcement Division and ATF fire inspectors were on the scene helping out the relatively small Georgetown Fire Department, but there was no early indication the fire was intentionally set, officials said.

The rear boardwalk along the Sampit River appeared to be intact while some of the wooden porches closer to the businesses and apartments on the river side burned to the waterline. As many as 20 boats tied up on the Sampit escaped damage when they were untied from their moorings and pushed off, to be collected later.

The fire was called in about 5:30 a.m. and took nearly five hours to get under control. Fire crews from as many as a dozen departments were called on to respond, some from as far away as Florence. It was the largest disaster to hit Georgetown since a sinkhole opened up on U.S. Highway 17 in 2011, damaging several buildings, including the county library and courthouse.

Efforts were being made to see if some aspects of the fire-damaged buildings and facades could be saved, some of which date to the latter part of the 19th century.

“How do you value buildings that were built during the Civil War?” asked Nanci Conley, executive director of the regional Red Cross chapter.

The exact ages of buildings on the block remained unclear. At least two buildings in the 700 block are listed on Georgetown's National Register Historic District. They include storefronts at 721 and 723 Front St., both of which were built around 1885.

Scoville said if the buildings are total losses, then Georgetown may not be able to rebuild them without raising their first-floor levels to meet federal flood standards — a change that could alter the character of the street.

Eric Emerson, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, said Tuesday's fire might have caused more damage to a South Carolina historic district than any other event since Hurricane Hugo.

“It's a tragedy, of course, when you lose historic buildings like that in a National Historic Register district,” he said, adding that the state would offer technical assistance and guidance in restoring damaged properties.

While the town's Rice Museum was not affected, officials did report some damage to the S.C. Maritime Museum on Front Street. Fire crews reportedly were able to move some of the displays.

Other merchants said the fire would have a ripple effect up and down Front Street since Georgetown's usual visitor habit is to come in to eat, shop and stroll the now-damaged waterfront.

“Everything that happens down there affects business down here,” said Melissa Levey, who works at one of the antiques shops at the west end of town.

Doug Harp watched the fire from the water aboard his 34-foot sailboat at the Sampit docks.

Harp was awakened by the sound of dry deck wood popping under the driving flames, and balls of fire erupted on the back deck of the restaurant area.

“It was hot,” he said, “like an oven.”

Robert Behre contributed to this report.