GEORGETOWN - Almost a year after an early morning fire claimed eight historic buildings, a row of plastic construction barrels and mesh separates the site from Front Street, and there's no sign that rebuilding will start anytime soon.
Those familiar with the site say this lack of activity stems from two realities.
First, whatever is built back here must comply with federal flood rules, which require either that the new construction be raised from street level or it that it be designed so the first floor can withstand a storm surge of several feet.
The second reality is the extra cost either option will entail - and the limited rents any rebuilt buildings could be produce.
Tee Martin owns Black Mingo Outfitters, which just escaped the flames, and another building next door that did not. Martin said the property owners have been working together recently to find a solution that works for the city and for them financially.
"It's just taken awhile in a small town to figure out exactly what we need to do," he said. "It costs as much to build in Georgetown as it does in Charleston, but the rents aren't the same. ... If we were getting the square footage rates you are getting on King Street, we'd probably be finished by now."
What the city can (and can't) do
The Sept. 25, 2013, fire claimed eight historic buildings in one of the city's most heavily trafficked spots, between the 700 block of Front Street and the Harborwalk over the Sampit River. No one died in the blaze, which is believed to have stemmed from oil-soaked rags.
The city quickly tried to do what it could to help the property owners - the eight burned lots are owned by seven different groups - by hiring a financial, design and engineering team to advise them on rebuilding.
But the owners weren't interested in contributing to the cost, and City Council ultimately didn't approve it.
"That didn't go anywhere, unfortunately," Mayor Jack Scoville said. "At this point, we're looking at the property owners to show us the way. The ball is kind of in their court."
The city remains involved, however. Scoville said it is the early stages of looking for state or federal grants that could offset some of the cost of complying with the flood rules.
"(But) you can't spend public money on private property," he said. "Whatever happens is going to have to be very creative, but it also has to be legal. It's just very complicated."
Scoville suggested such grants could be used to build a common foundation for the site but suggested that might involve city ownership of the foundation, "and I don't know if the property owners are even willing to consider that."
Miller said there was hope for landing a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, but that didn't pan out.
"We did apply last fall to FEMA, but we didn't do well because the FEMA flood grant programs are set up for buildings with flood losses and our buildings were lost to a fire."
A looming deadline
Miller said another reason rebuilding was delayed was the discovery of asbestos in the buildings' debris pile.
That slowed efforts to clear the site, but that work was completed a few months ago.
More recently, Miller said the owners have been talking to a local contractor and engineer to explore the most cost-effective approach for meeting the flood rules - an approach that might involve a hybrid of slightly higher elevation and floodproofing.
Both Scoville and Miller agreed higher elevations would not be desirable - they would not match their historic neighbors and would make casual window shopping difficult or even impossible.
"We don't want to raise them up if we don't have to," Miller said. "You want to do what's best for the city, but we have to do what's financially efficient, too."
Miller said the owners are definitely looking to have their foundations engineered and built under one contract, though the owners also have been talking to different architects and might do their own thing once the foundation is in.
As the first anniversary of the Sept. 25 nears, the property owners are feeling the need to start rebuilding sometime soon.
If work hasn't been permitted by Sept. 25, 2015 - the two-year anniversary - Miller said the owners could have to undergo a time-consuming process to get waivers to build on the river from the state office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That extra step would only add to the delays and the cost.
"There is a sense of urgency to get it done within two years," he said. "We wish we were already under construction. Then again, this is a lot of money, and nobody wants to make any crazy mistakes."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Robert Behre/Staff A makeshift cross stands in the dirt along Front Street. Property owners and officials say a big challenge is figuring out what sort of foundation should be built to support the new buildings.×
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