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Florence City Council OKs incentives for mixed-use projects

Posted: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 10:50 am

FLORENCE, S.C. — The Florence City Council voted to approve millions of dollars in incentives for two development groups that will redevelop several of the largest buildings downtown at a special called meeting Tuesday morning.

One development project incorporates the Kress, Woolworth and Kuker buildings on the 100 block of West Evans Street and the Guaranty Bank building on North Dargan Street, roughly 60,000 square feet of space that will be transformed into a live, work and play, public and private mixed-use project.

The development group, New Florence LLC, which includes former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, restaurateur Dale Barth, attorney Kevin Barth, real estate agent Ken Jackson, businessman Jim Brown and businessman Frank Chisholm, has plans to invest $10 million in the space, creating a 200-seat restaurant, a sauce bottling facility, a micro-distillery, 15 to 18 loft apartments, office space and a public atrium and rooftop terrace, according to Mayor Stephen J. Wukela.

The Kress building was originally put into a 60-day status-quo period this summer by council to allow interested parties to submit their development plans, for the massive, 15,400-square-foot building. The city put a formal public request for proposals out on Aug. 2 and received one application by the deadline of Sept. 5 that also incorporated the surrounding buildings.

Wukela said the project will create some 150 to 200 jobs and keep private investment momentum moving forward.

“These two investment groups are very well known, very respected businessmen in the community they are all, frankly putting their money where their mouth is and making this substantial investment in spite of the risks that exists,” Wukela said. “And I think it demonstrates to other developers out there considering this prospect that this is a reasonable undertaking, it’s a viable undertaking and it’s a worthwhile undertaking.”

The $1.98 million incentive package represents a similar percentage and package given to the Hotel Florence group. New Florence will receive a $200,000 conditional grant for the group’s purchase of the Kuker building, $850,000 in property tax rebates (financed through Tax Increment Financing district dollars) and $930,000 relative to the city’s construction of a public rooftop terrace and atrium. The city is conveying the city-owned Kress (which it received as a gift from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation) and Woolworth buildings and the Florence Downtown Development Corp.-owned Guaranty Bank building.

The Kuker building was sold to the development group by Bo Osborne.

Property tax revenue per year from the properties before they were publicly owned was about $1,000 annually. Wukela said once developed, it will generate $139,000 in property taxes, however the group will receive 85 percent in property tax rebates for seven years, netting the city some $20,000 annually. Water and sewer revenue is expected to be $1 million over 25 years. Estimates did not include hospitality tax revenue generation.

The group issued a statement to the Morning News after the decision that reads in part: “We are unwavering in our commitment to going above and beyond in respecting the great history of this prominent location and creating something that will be a catalyst in moving all of us to a better Florence and Pee Dee region.”


Royal Knight

Council approved $280,000 in incentives to the Hotel Florence group, Downtown Hospitality LLC, to develop the 8,300-square-foot Royal Knight building located across the street from the Kuker building. The project is estimated to cost $2.5 million and will create extended stay rooms for Hotel Florence on the second floor with retail space, a restaurant and a public restroom on the first floor.

This measure also was approved by council 6-1, with Councilman Ed Robinson voting against it.

The incentives include $180,000 for the city to stabilize the building and bring it into compliance with downtown maintenance and appearance standards as well as $100,000 toward the construction of a public restroom on the first floor, something Wukela estimated would have cost double if done separately. The city also performed bat abatement on the building this summer.

The FDDC, which bought the building two years ago for $385,000, will now convey the building to the group, according to City Manager Drew Griffin, who said such investments will come back to the community in several ways.

“Through job creation and economic investment,” Griffin said. “We estimate that the hotel project created new wealth in Florence of $29 million. That is no different than the state giving incentives to manufacturing; they do it because of the spin off dollars created. And tourism and hospitality are considered very similarly to manufacturing … you bring wealth into your community through the production of goods and services, well a restaurant or hospitality tourism does the same thing.”

A presentation was also made to council showing the city would be able to obtain a $20 million bond based on TIF district revenues.

The TIF was created in the event that property tax rates in the TIF district, basically the historic district, would increase over a 2006 baseline; once the TIF is enacted the city will capture those revenues, school district and county revenues for a period of up to 13 years. The city is in the position to determine what those revenues will be to enact the TIF and prepare to do a bond issuance based on those revenues to fund development incentives and other projects like two parking garages, a basketball complex and other projects totaling $16.1 million.

Council will vote on the ordinance in January.

Revitalization moves to North Dargan Street in Florence

GAVIN JACKSON, Morning News | Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 8:33 pm

FLORENCE, S.C. — Downtown development interest continues to expand as now North Dargan Street begins to see more movement, especially with the recent purchase of a building by an investment group on the block.

N & R, made up of John R. Etheridge, Kevin Etheridge and Victor Webster, recently closed on the three-story, nearly 17,000-square-foot building at 142 N. Dargan St. The unoccupied building, formerly the Rainwater Furniture store, is zoned for mixed use and the group has plans to utilize it as such, but right now Webster said they’re focused on the ground floor space.

“Our short-term goal is to renovate and attract a tenant downstairs, to have an anchor tenant,” Webster said. “Then the upstairs we’ve kicked around maybe doing an antique mall on the second and third floor. I think our long-term goal would be putting apartments up here on the second and third floor. We have room for four apartments on each floor.”

The building, built in 1939, is in better shape than many downtown buildings, boasting a solid roof, structural integrity, a decent brick façade and a sprinkler system already in place. Workers were already fixing up the roughly 6,000-square-foot ground floor space, part of a renovation the group will do in parts. Webster estimates the renovation will take $200,000 for the entire building, keeping it as close to original as possible.

“As historically accurate as I can, that’s what I want to do, bring it back to the way it was,” Webster said. “I’ve got a little saying I came up with when I started doing this: ‘Out with the old and in with the older,’ meaning getting everything that was put on here in the ‘60s and ‘70s off and putting it back to its original state.”

Webster is no stranger to Dargan Street, co-owning the Thai House 2 restaurant building at 168 S. Dargan St. with Bo Osborne. Webster said moving toward the northern part of Dargan Street is the next frontier for the downtown.

“The natural revitalization progression will be on North Dargan Street,” Webster said. “There are properties still for sale on this section of Dargan, and investors talk to me on a weekly basis about property available on this end.”

Neighboring the building is the North Dargan Street Innovation Center, the city’s business incubator headed by director Shelby Jenerette. Across the street work is happening at 137 N. Dargan St. where it is rumored a restaurant will be opening.

Kevin Etheridge, attorney with the Gardner Law Firm, said it was the right time to get involved with downtown for him and his brother.

“We are completely aware that a lot of folks were instrumental in turning downtown Florence around. We can’t thank them enough,” Etheridge said. “Mayor Wukela, the city council and numerous local business leaders should be commended for the job they have done. We are very thankful for the extraordinary efforts they have taken on behalf of our city.”

N & R didn’t provide the purchase price of the building, but property records show that prior owner Don Pattillo paid $84,000 for it in Sept. 1997.

Beginning next year building owners on the 100 block of North Dargan will be required to bring their facades into compliance with downtown appearance codes.

City of Florence: Livability court next step in neighborhood improvements

BY GAVIN JACKSON Morning News gjackson@florencenews.com | Posted: Monday, October 14, 2013 8:53 pm

FLORENCE, S.C. – A livability court is coming to Florence after city council members on Monday conditionally appointed five judges to rule and an administrator to manage the new entity that will focus on code enforcement and nuisance complaints in city neighborhoods.

The livability court will focus on nuisance and abatement issues and is modeled after the country’s first such court that was started in Charleston.

The court will strictly enforce codes such as when a neighbor’s property is overgrown or dilapidated and nuisance complaints such as noise violations – minor infractions that clog the city court system Mayor Stephen J. Wukela said.

“We’ve got a persistent problem in the neighborhoods both with abandoned property, dilapidated property, lack of infrastructure and lack of investment,” Wukela. “As you know the city has been working very diligently of late in particular with a neighborhood redevelopment program and this is part of it.”

The court will consist of an administrative judge, two associate judges and three municipal judges that will handle cases and alleviate the caseload of the city court. Wukela didn’t have a specific number of cases that go through city court, but said alone there are 2,500 dilapidated, abandoned properties that could keep the court busy.

“These livability issues are much more complex both with regard to law, but also with regard to the remedies and monitoring developments in these properties,” Wukela said. “So often you’ll perhaps have a property owner come in and say ‘well I’ll do these things’ in the city court then get lost in the shuffle; a livability judge is designed much differently.”

Rangeley Bailey was named associate judge focusing on livability issues, and Lloyd Willcox also will serve as an associate judge.

“I think it will help give residents of Florence a place to take their concerns about livability issues, noise concerns and maintenance issues and all those concerns that haven’t had a place before,” Bailey said. “And it’s all still in development but I look forward to learning about it and being a part of that and helping Florence be a better place.”

City Manager Drew Griffin said the biggest criticism to the city has been the inability to have ineffective codes enforcement.

“There’s no question this will go to the concept of restructuring of neighborhoods, absolutely that’s a big part of it,” Griffin said. “This is some basic infrastructure work that we’re trying to put into place to make the process of enforcement and changing neighborhoods more effective and more reasonably handled versus criminalizing those kinds of activities.”

The council also unanimously approved a $6.1 million bond to pay off a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan the city assumed from the Town of Timmonsville when Florence assumed the town’s water and sewer system. The current federal government shutdown is however preventing action on the $12 million loan package that requires additional information and approvals.

“But our hope is that in the very near future the government will start operating again at the federal level and we’ll be able to conclude that closing,” Wukela said. “What the closing will mean is that one, the emergency funds that have been expended by the water and sewer system will be replenished by the new borrowing and that the next step of work can commence that’s non-urgent and immediate in nature all though it as all very important.”

The bond has a 1.875 percentage rate over a 40-year loan term and the mayor said it wasn’t clear if $4 million in grants would pay that balance down or go toward reducing the $12 million in loans.

Council also approved the appropriations of the $517,000 in accommodations tax; of which $354,000, or 65 percent, went to 22 organizations and $163,000, or 30 percent, went toward the Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau for advertising and promotion. Additionally $27,271 went to the general fund.

Florence Mayor Wukela takes primary win as vote for unity

By: Ellen Meder | SCNow
Published: June 12, 2012
Updated: June 12, 2012 – 11:13 PM

Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela scored a decisive victory over city councilman Ed Robinson — 2,273 to 915— in the Democratic primary for mayor Tuesday, then said the result was a sign that the city not only approves of the work he has done in office but did not respond to his opponent’s divisive campaign tactics.

At a post-election rally at a downtown restaurant and in front of a group of about 30 supporters, Wukela said that in 2008 America proved that white voters will vote for a black candidate, and that Tuesday night Florence proved that black voters will vote for a white candidate with the right message. He said that while it was not pleasant having to combat racially charged rhetoric from Robinson’s campaign, it was important to him to maintain a unifying message that focused on issues important to all Florentines.

“I think it’s a statement about the fact that people are voting on the content of the candidate’s character and not the color of their skin and that’s what’s important that we’re moving forward as a unified community,” Wukela said.

Turnout was similar to the hotly contested 2008 Florence mayoral primary, which Wukela famously won by a single vote. That was in contrast to other communities across the state which saw a drop off in participation. Wukela took that to mean that the Florence mayoral race is very important to citizens.

Poll workers at traditionally conservative precincts, including the Briggs Elementary precinct, said many voters were crossing over party lines to have a say in the mayoral race.

In November’s general election, Wukela will face city councilman Steve Powers, the only politician running for Florence mayor as a Republican. Powers was elected to council four years ago as a Democrat.

Robinson sent his congratulations to Wukela via the press and has no regrets about his campaign. He did say that he was very surprised by the results.

Robinson said his campaign shed some light on how the community looks at his perspective, and especially took note of the lack of support from black ministers, who told him his message was good but his method didn’t suit them.

He also took Wukela’s win to mean that the low income and minority families he tries to work for must have either not turned out or are satisfied with the mayor’s policy, even if he is not.

“The low income and working class are now subject to the upper income and middle income and sometimes that’s what people want,” Robinson said.

He said that with his loss in the mayoral primary, he will also lose traction on city council because the race showed there’s more support behind Wukela. But Robinson said he’ll continue to fight for what he thinks is right.

Wukela said his work has been beneficial for all races and income levels in Florence. That includes his focus on crime. Wukela said that his policies resulted in a 38 percent drop in juvenile crime. He also said that dealing with abandoned buildings to revitalize communities and bringing new businesses to the downtown area is benefiting all Florentines and will help him “carry the day” in November.

“What the community wants is to unify: white and black, Democrat and Republican,” Wukela said. “They’ve said that loud and clear, and I think it’s a clear mandate for us to move forward with that challenge.”

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Major improvement project slated for Florence’s Oakland Avenue

Published: November 29, 2011

Oakland Avenue, the long-neglected chief artery through north Florence, is finally going to get some attention.

Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela announced at a Tuesday press conference that state funds have been authorized for an approximately $400,000 fix up of Oakland, from the Martin Luther King Bridge to Wilson Road. The almost two-mile long strip will see new curb and gutter work, new asphalt paving and some drainage work completed.

In an interview, Wukela said the project would meet long-standing needs in the area.

“When I ran for mayor in 2009 and went door-to-door,” said Wukela, “there were two things, I heard: abandoned houses and Oakland Avenue. It’s time we got this done.”

The funds will come from a South Carolina Department of Transportation fund designated for Florence County road improvements. The county’s transportation committee approved the project earlier this month.

Wukela said the precise amount allocated, and the timetable for construction, won’t be known until SCDOT engineers appraise the project and produce an estimate later this year. City of Florence engineers have already weighed in with a rough estimate.

Area residents have long complained about the roads bumps and holes. Drainage issues following heavy rain has also been cited as a regular problem.

Wukela said the road has been passed over in the past, in large part because it was considered a city road an the City of Florence has no dedicated road funds. Road maintenance in South Carolina is handled mostly by the state and by individual county governments.

Wukela credited State Sena. Hugh K. Leatherman of Florence with opening the door to finding the funds for the project now.

“I credit our improving relationship for this,” said Wukela. “In contrast to what’s going on in Washington, we have people here crossing the aisles and getting things done.”

Wukela, who is running for a second term as mayor next year, is a Democrat. Leatherman, chairman of the S.C. Senate’s powerful Finance Committee, is a Republican.