After debating the issue for more than 90 minutes Tuesday, the Charleston City Council agreed to buy the Sofa Super Store site on Savannah Highway for $1.85 million despite objections to the cost voiced by several councilmen.
Mayor Joe Riley called the site of the disastrous June 18 fire "sacred ground" and said he was taken aback by the opposition.
Nine Charleston firefighters died battling the blaze at the Sofa Super Store after a loading dock fire spread throughout the building filled with highly combustible sofas. It was the nation's worst loss of firefighters' lives since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Councilman Tim Mallard, who now represents the West Ashley neighborhood where the fire took place, said his constituents opposed the purchase.
"I've taken a poll, and the people in my district don't want us to spend $1.8 million to buy this site," Mallard said. "It's just the tip of the iceberg. Six months from now, we'll be asked for $3 (million) to $4 million more to build a park."
The city has not decided what to do with the land and plans to form a committee. Suggestions for the site have included a memorial, a fire station, a museum and, as Councilwoman Deb Morinelli suggested Tuesday, a church.
Riley said the city's purpose in buying the site is to protect it from commercial redevelopment.
"The scope of this tragedy is of historic proportions," Riley said. "For the life of me, I can't imagine anybody driving up on that property and ordering a Coca-Cola or a six-pack of beer or a piece of furniture or anything."
Councilman James Lewis, who joined Mallard in opposing the purchase, said other city public safety officers killed in the line of duty have not been similarly memorialized. Lewis also said the money could be better spent improving city fire stations.
Councilman Wendell Gilliard said he was appalled by the opposition, considering that City Council voted unanimously last year to negotiate to buy the land. The purchase amount is based on the city's appraisal.
"When we first discussed this, there wasn't a 'nay' in the room," he said, referring to the vote last July. "I don't get it."
Councilmen Robert Mitchell and Aubry Alexander also expressed reservations about the purchase but voted to support it.
"In talking to my constituents, they want to know what we are going to do with the site," Alexander said. "I think we, as a council, need to answer that before we spend $1.8 million." He said it was appropriate that council debate the issue.
Mitchell noted that the city raised its property tax this year to pay for Fire Department improvements, and said the faltering economy left him feeling conflicted about spending the money.
The vote to buy the property from the Goldstein family was 9-2, with Mallard and Lewis opposed. Councilman Lewis Waring was absent, and Councilman Gary White abstained because the bank that employs him holds the note on the property.
After the vote, Randy Hutchinson, brother of the late Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, said he didn't think the city needed to buy the fire site to honor his brother.
"These men weren't heroes, they were doing their job," he said. "It's a shame that it occurred, but it's not necessary to spend that kind of money on these nine men."
Riley said he hopes that contributions from the county, state and federal governments and from private individuals will help cover the cost of the property and a fitting memorial. The city plans to take out a short-term loan to buy the property, and consider long-term financing in about a year.