Summerville uncertain what to do with Finucan, Berry historic properties

The Finucan property on Richardson Avenue is one of two signature properties the town of Summerville bought in its historic district and now doesn’t know what to do with.

SUMMERVILLE — The Finucan property is a prize wedge of commercial real estate in the downtown area.

The Teacherage is a 19th century home alongside Azalea Park, and a cachet in the town’s 20th-century history.

The two historic district properties have a few more things in common: They were bought by the town at prime prices from “old town” families, but the town doesn’t know what to do with either one.

They are, as Mayor Bill Collins conceded, a mess he has to clean up.

“We’re going to either start using it or get rid of it,” he said about each of the properties.

The problem is, the properties were bought before the recession hit in 2008. Getting rid of either might well mean selling at a loss.

Combined, the purchases cost the town about $2 million. The town has put a total of $100,000 or more into work on them.

The town paid too much, said Councilman Walter Bailey, who ran for his seat after the purchases, campaigning partly on making better use of town funds.

“Any time the town buys property they don’t have a specific need for, it bothers me,” Bailey said. “I never heard a clamor from the residents (for either purchase).”

Property development should be left to the private sector, he said.

“We were hurting for space for government services, and the town was going out buying property.”

The $1.2 million Finucan property is a crooked “T”-shaped, 1½-acre tract that fronts on Richardson Avenue, and Cedar and West 2nd South streets.

It was bought from the family of longtime municipal court judge Tom Finucan.

The big-dollar purchase from a town employee raised eyebrows, but the price was within $50,000 of the appraisal a year earlier.

The location — a block from Town Hall and the Hutchinson Square downtown — was so prime that an appraisal after the 2006 purchase valued it at $1.6 million.

Tourism and downtown business interests were hoping for a boutique hotel to open and there was an interested local hotelier, said Councilman Aaron Brown, the only member from that time still on council.

The deal fell through when a final tract on the block could not be purchased.

The town’s other planned uses — such as offices to free up cramped Town Hall, or building a civic center — didn’t work out.

The property has been used for parking, and a cottage on Richardson Avenue to temporarily house public safety offices.

It’s on the market for $1.35 million and there’s at least one buyer keeping a low-key interest, said Robert Pratt, the Realtor handing the sale for the town.

“It’s an unusual property. For the right buyer it could be OK, but the problem is the market has dropped since they bought it,” Pratt said. In aftermath of the recession, “The thing that’s really taking a hit is the (value of) land.”

The town may consider hanging on to the The Berry House.

The circa-1870 home is known around the old town as the Teacherage, because it was bought by schools superintendent James H. Spann in the 1940s to house single, out-of-town teachers.

The history and its location, literally spilling into Azalea Park, give it the potential to house a museum or some other tourism draw. It could be used for special events such as Sculpture in the South or weddings.

Its $700,000 price didn’t raise any eyebrows, coming in between two appraisals and in line with the market.

But no sooner than the town bought it, officials ran into problems from termites to attracting events to a town park building where alcohol couldn’t be served.

Collins was elected in 2011, looking to bring the town more tourism revenue. He spurred council to give more leeway for consuming alcohol at public events.

Collins also put together a committee of residents to come up with recommendations on how the Berry House might be used.

“The opportunities are there,” said Rita Berry, Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce president. She is serving on the committee and is related by marriage to the family that sold the house.

“Because of where it’s located, there’s so much potential. It depends on funding.”

Brown and others familiar with the purchases say they weren’t sweetheart deals with local families.

“We didn’t just give the Finucan family some money. We did what we could to protect the public interest,” Brown said. Market value is simply what the buyer and seller agree on, he said.

“The council did the best they could at that particular time. It was much better economic times. We had high hopes for what we could do with those properties,” he said.

As for now, council members roughly agree on one thing about the Finucan tract and the Berry house.

I just want to get the best value for them,” Councilman Bob Jackson said.

Reach Bo Petersen at ?937-5744.