North Charleston to buy Garco mill

Kent Johnson, vice president for development with The Beach Company, at the GARCO redevelopment site located at Garco Street and O’Hear Avenue in North Charleston, in November 2012. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

North Charleston plans to buy the vacant Garco mill building for $1.5 million, and plans to turn it into an arts center with performance space and apartments for artists.

The challenge the city will face is in the improvements and renovations to the two-story, 120,000-square-foot, asbestos-tainted building near the bustling East Montague strip.

Mayor Keith Summey described the work needed as “extremely major” and estimated the total project cost at between $10 million and $15 million.

As some city council members grumbled about the unknown costs of the plan Thursday, Summey defended the project.

“What you have to remember is, Montague and that section of North Charleston developed around that mill, and was the mill village,” he told council members. “That building is all that’s left.”

The old factory building sits on 6 acres at Garco Street and O’Hear Avenue, and is what remains of an industrial giant originally called General Asbestos & Rubber Co., that was once a top employer in the city.

The Beach Company owns the property and much of the adjacent land, having purchased the entire 23-acre site at a 2003 bankruptcy auction. The company plans to develop the property adjacent to the mill building with commercial space and more than 200 apartments, according to a summary provided to City Council.

The city set its sights on the Garco mill building when it became clear that it would lose space on the former Navy base that’s been used for arts functions.

Summey’s administration believes creating an arts center in the Garco building would complement the ongoing revitalization of the Olde Village community. Early concepts call for a 300-seat theater, studio apartments for artists, and perhaps a coffee shop.

“Remember, this building will replace our entire arts program,” he said.

The immediate plan for the building is, however, more complicated than a purchase and renovation by the city.

Summey said the city is working on a plan to buy the 6-acre property with the mill building, then do a deal to sell the building to a company — which he did not name — that manufactures custom lighting, and then lease part of the building back.

The idea is, the company interested in the building would be eligible for tax benefits related to the renovations, and would pay property taxes. The city would lease back roughly half the space, and years later would purchase the building outright.

But that arrangement is speculative, and the city could end up owning the building and being responsible for all the renovation work.

“I’m hearing these unknown costs, and that’s the scariest thing to me,” said Councilman Todd Olds.

A $100,000 study of the site commissioned by the city found that in addition to general renovations the building will need improvements to meet building codes and protect against potential earthquake damage, as well as asbestos abatement.

Councilman Bob King, who represents the area where the building is located, said the land alone is worth the $1.5 million purchase price, and will likely be worth more after The Beach Company develops the property adjacent.

“I don’t see how we can lose,” said King.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.