Florence council hoping new revitalization plan won’t repeat old mistakes

Published: August 09, 2011

Florence City Councilman Ed Robinson managed to revive his old plan to rebuild the city’s deteriorating inner city neighborhoods “house by house and block by block” at Monday’s city council meeting.

With a little help from his council colleagues, the program may not land the city in hot water with the federal government this time around.

At Monday’s meeting, council unanimously approved a $125,000 grant to the Florence Community Development Agency, for a program variously called “Fix a Block” and “Seeds for Grants.”

The money would be available for construction financing on properties in inner city neighborhoods where urban blight has become a problem. Generally speaking, the city would pay the contractor, in installments, during construction of the pre-sold homes, then get paid back immediately when the new resident obtains traditional mortgage financing from a bank.

But the program comes with what city attorney Jim Peterson called “safeguards on top of safeguards,” all designed essentially to protect the city’s interests by keeping the money out of the FCDA’s hands.

Implied, but not stated, at the meeting were concerns about handing over city dollars to an organization with a checkered history in regards to financial matters.

In 1994-95, the FCDA, with Robinson at its helm, became embroiled in a controversy with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over the fate of federal monies (some $62,500 according to city council minutes from 1994) given to the city for urban development projects, and then passed on to the FCDA.

HUD questioned the legitimacy of the expenditures and sought a full accounting. The city attempted to provide that, but could never coax a required report out of Robinson and other FCDA officials, and eventually had to bring legal action against the agency. To retain its funding status with HUD, the city had to pay back some of the money.

To avoid such an eventuality this time around, the city’s latest agreement with the FCDA calls for the city to select the builder and for the money to flow from the city directly to the builder, and from the bank, upon closing, directly to the city.

Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela said near the end of the discussion of the plan that, “Frankly I’ve got my concerns about Florence Community Development (Agency). … Not to get into that today, but that’s there.

“What we need to have is licensed contractors, with all money going directly to those contractors; and all money from the bank back to the city, without passing ‘go’ stopping off somewhere along the way. The (FCDA) won’t be touching money. I don’t mean to cast aspersion, but that gives me a level of comfort.”

Wukela enhanced his comfort level at the meeting by making the safeguards more stringent than those proposed in a draft by city staff that was ready at the beginning of the meeting. The additions included having the city select the builder and eliminating any confusion as to whether the monies would ever flow through the FCDA.

At the end of the day, Wukela felt confident they would not. Most of his council colleagues were also convinced.

Council conservatives Buddy Brand and Glynn Willis both voiced their satisfaction at the safeguards in place. Council member Steve Powers said that, “We’ll end up with tax income producing property, we’ll create some jobs and we’ll fix up some neighborhoods. In this economy, that’s all good things.”

For his part, Robinson seemed pleased that the plan was going through.

“This thing (the neighborhood revitalization) is incumbent on the development of downtown,” Robinson said. “New housing should be one of the first courses of action. If downtown is going to work, we need to work on particular areas around it, too.

“Right now,” said Robinson, “the downtown is falling apart and the neighborhood is falling apart. You’ve got to fix both. We can’t do one with out other. …”

Robinson’s countenance changed a bit when Wukela moved to amend the agreement and add the language with regard to the city picking the builder.

“We might have a problem there,” Robinson said.

The plan presented by the FCDA to the city suggested that certain builders would build bungalow-style houses in the decrepit neighborhoods at below-market rates, allowing the homes to be sold at a profit. The profit could revert to the FCDA, allowing it to build up funds that would eventually allow it to run the construction loan program on its own.

That doesn’t seem possible under the approved plan, since the money will not pass into FCDA hands.

Jeanne Downing, who is running the program for the FCDA, told Robinson not to worry.

“It’ll be all right,” Downing said. “We’ll get this handled.”

Profits or not, plans to get off the ground appear to be in place. HUD recently signed off on one aspect of the plan.

Dr. Mark Lawhorn, a Florence developer, is listed on the board of the FCDA sub group that put the plan together. And Robinson said that a piece of land just a few blocks away from McLeod Hospital had already been made available as the first building lot.

Weed & Seed ask Florence City Council for help to avoid closure

Published: August 08, 2011

Representatives of the Pee Dee Community Action Agency told Florence City Council Monday that the “Weed & Seed” program in north Florence is danger of imminent collapse without an infusion of funds from some source.

Walter Fleming, the PDCAA’s director, said the group was “near the end” and would have to close its doors soon without help. The group has received some private funding, but relies on Florence City and County for most of its help. The county recently paid for some repairs to the building.

“They’ve been very generous,” said the Rev. Mack Hines, who accompanied Fleming to the meeting, to plead the organization’s case.

Weed & Seed provides a variety of community programs out of its rented location in north Florence, but most are directed at providing children and youth with safe and wholesome activities. Fleming said between 45-50 kids participate in Weed & Seed programs during the summer, although when a Morning News reporter visited Monday afternoon, considerably fewer than that were on hand. Volunteers at the Weed & Seed center, located in a shopping center on Oakland Ave., said numbers were down because the program is in a limbo period between the 10-week summer day program and the start of the school year and the beginning of its after-school program.

Summer campers are charged $10 per week, but that’s a nominal fee “which barely covers supplies,” said Fleming.

Weed & Seed asked council for $75,000 two years ago — Fleming and company also said at that time that the doors were about to close — but council chose not to fund the organization then. Fleming said Weed & Seed would need about between $30,000 to $35,000 to keep it’s doors open.

Council members were sympathetic to the organization’s plight — council member Glynn Willis told Fleming that, “you have been heard” — but council couldn’t promise that any money would be available.

“Your budget problems are our problems, too,” said Mayor Stephen J. Wukela. “I don’t know what we can do. We’ll see.”

Councilman Steve Powers said that “the programs that Weed & Seed provides, and children they touch, is a great thing.” He suggested that council refer the request to its budget committee for review. Council constantly reviews the city’s fiscal position, especially its fund balance — it’s reserve — so that it can make additions or deletions to the budget as needed.

Wukela said, “There’s not a lot left (in the reserve, over and above what the city wants to keep on hand as a backstop). … And every time we say the word ‘fund balance’ (city manager) David Williams gets nervous. So we want to be wise in what we do here.”

Wukela said in an interview later that council might be able to provide funds for some equipment or other capital items — providing council agreed.

Council eventually voted unanimously to send the matter to its budget committee, and directed that sub-group to render a “speedy decision.”

Robinson: Florence revitalization hurts downtown businesses

Published: July 28, 2011

Plans to dismantle a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district — originally proposed to fuel downtown Florence redevelopment — to accommodate a proposed boutique hotel would be unfair to existing merchants, Florence City Councilman Ed Robinson said in a press conference late Thursday morning.

Robinson’s opposition comes one week after a proposal by Florence County Council to dismantle the TIF district as part of an incentive package that would bring a 53-room, upscale boutique hotel, a $5.6 million investment expected to create roughly 100 jobs, to downtown Florence.

Plans to convert the old Cosmos building at 126 W. Evans St. were announced in June when Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela sent a letter to Florence County Council Chairman K.G. “Rusty” Smith and Florence County Council proposing an incentive package for the venture.

In order for the incentive package to work, the TIF that is in place must be removed so a multi-county business park can be formed that would allow the county to offer special tax revenue credits to the hotel project for seven years.

In a statement released early Thursday, Robinson said removing the TIF district would deprive existing merchants, most of whom are minorities, of the benefits and redevelopment funds a large business like a hotel would bring.

“There are proposed substantial investments in downtown, and that is a good thing. If done fairly, it could enhance the present businesses downtown,” Robinson said.

A TIF is designed to encourage investment in an area, causing property taxes to increase as improvements are made. As property value increases, the TIF channels portions of the new tax revenue toward funding projects related to further infrastructure development to compliment the ongoing investment.

In the case of the proposed hotel and restaurant, the amount of investment is not enough to trigger the TIF. In order to enact the special business district proposed in the plan, the old Cosmos building must be removed from the TIF district. That way, the property can receive the special tax credits and the TIF remains intact.

County council proposed last week to lift all the TIF rather than just the parcel on which the hotel would sit. In its place, a “Multi-County Industrial Park” would be established, allowing the county to incentivize the development in a way the TIF could not do.

But if the entire historic district is removed from the downtown TIF, then the TIF money goes with it — something Robinson said would cut existing businesses from a possible revenue source that could give them a leg up on participating in downtown redevelopment.

“When you’re taking away the funding source to help develop the low-income areas, then it’s not going to develop,” he said. “What’s going to happen is the people who will be able to afford to come downtown are the people who have a lot of money, because there’s nothing coming in as a result of removing the TIF district to uplift the deprived businesses within the city of Florence.”

Robinson isn’t the only city councilman with misgivings about removing the TIF. Councilman Steve Powers said last week he’s concerned such a move would allow the county to use tax revenue from downtown investment for projects other than downtown development.

Robinson called on city and county officials to pursue previously discussed plans that would help downtown merchants, including:

The financing of a business incubator for downtown
The creation of micro business loans to encourage minority investment downtown
Financial support and counseling for existing businesses to help them change and grow
The proposed incentive for the hotel project would save the hotel and restaurant money during the renovation and first several years of business and allow the hotel and restaurant to become successfully established.

Based on current tax rates and projected land values, the deal would equal roughly $500,000 in tax credits.

City council members voted unanimously last week to instruct its staff to engage county staff and relevant parties in a discussion about the plan.

Councils at odds on part of Florence hotel project

Published: July 22, 2011

A bump on the path to an upscale hotel in downtown Florence?


Florence County Council and Florence City Councils are at odds — slightly, or maybe more —over how to untangle the property planned for the proposed “Hotel Florence” project on West Evans Street from the existing Tax Increment Financing District there.

County council began proceedings Thursday to remove the entire downtown historic district from the TIF.

City council met Friday to approve a $425,000 grant for the developers of the project. While they were doing that, however, questions about the county’s actions arose. The city, which has handled most of the negotiations with the local development group that’s planning to build the hotel and its accompanying restaurant, intended to move just the hotel property itself from the TIF.

The difference between the two approaches is the difference between guaranteeing that future tax money from downtown redevelopment stays downtown or making it available for projects across the county.

The point of removing the hotel project from the TIF is to allow for the creation of a “Multi-County Industrial Park” at the site, which would allow the county to incentivize the development in a way the TIF could not do. But if the entire historic district is removed from the downtown TIF, then the TIF money goes with it. Downtown supporters, like city councilman Steve Powers, worry that if that happens, the downtown area will never see it again.

“In my mind, (taking the entire historic district) is very dangerous,” he said. “Would the county use that money for downtown projects? Why don’t you ask the citizens of the county if that’s what they’d want to do with that money?”

Powers said during city council’s discussion of the matter he is “very much in favor of the (hotel) project,” but said that he “couldn’t support taking the historic district away.”

City officials were hoping at their Friday morning meeting that the county action was just a mistake of sorts. “We could just be making a mountain out of a molehill,” said councilman Buddy Brand.

But county council chairman K.G. “Rusty” Smith said, in an interview later Friday, that’s not the case. County officials initiated action to remove the entire district because they thought it was simpler — and better.

“We’re looking at downtown Florence seeing lots of projects like this in the years ahead,” Smith said. “We don’t want to have to come back and go through this every time. We thought it was better to just get it all done at once.”

When told the county plan was giving some city officials indigestion, Smith said, “Look, the functionality (of taking out a property at a time) just wasn’t good. We think this is the way to do it. It will make everyone’s property values go up and they’ll be able to fix up their own property.”

That said, Smith said he didn’t think the two bodies would have trouble coming to an agreement on the matter.

“I think we’ll work it out,” he said.

To that end, city council voted unanimously to instruct its staff to engage county staff — “or whoever needs to be in the conversation,” said Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela — in a discussion about the plan.

“One of the hardest things to do is make an agreement between two government bodies,” Wukela said, “as you can see.”

City council also on Friday approved a $425,000 grant to the development group to assist them with the purchase of the Evans Street property where the hotel is to be built. The grant, which will be distributed in two parts, will come from the city’s utility reserve fund and depends upon the project purchasing water and sewer services from the city sufficient to match the grant amounts over the next 25 years. If the project does not produce water and sewer revenue equal to the grant, then the developer would have to pay the city the difference, plus a small administrative fee.

Councilman Ed Robinson, who says he supports the project but believes the city does not support black ventures in the city in the same way it does white ventures, voted against the agreement, which passed 5-1. Councilwoman Octavia Williams-Blake was absent.

The project would bring the 53-room “Hotel Florence” to the West Evans Street parcel, along with a 180-seat restaurant. The restuarant is the current Victor’s Bistro, which would move north from its current South Irby Street address to the new location. Victor’s owner Tim Norwood is a member of the development group along with attorney Ben Zeigler, the Raines Hotel Group, architect Randy Key and the Pearce Land Co. LLC.

Florence County moves forward on TIF agreement, revitalizing historic downtown

Published: July 21, 2011
Updated: July 21, 2011 – 4:36 PM

Florence County Council has taken yet another step forward in the process to revitalize the historic downtown of the City of Florence.

The county council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday requesting the city to rescind the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district that makes up the city’s historic downtown.

Both city and county officials have said a resolution was necessary and must be agreed upon by both council’s before plans to bring a 53-room, upscale boutique hotel representing a $5.6 million investment that is expected to create roughly 100 jobs to downtown Florence.

The project also would move the popular Victor’s restaurant, located on 1247 S. Irby St., to the hotel’s lobby in an area with a 180 seating capacity.

County Council Chairman Rusty Smith said the council’s actions Thursday mark a significant step forward for the redevelopment of downtown Florence and that the hotel project could just be the start of development there.

“I think it’s the impetus for that area,” Smith said. “I think it will be an exceptional opportunity to enhance downtown Florence and it will be the beginning of many good things to come.”

Plans to convert the old Cosomo’s building at 126 W. Evans St. into the boutique hotel were announced in June when Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela sent a letter to Smith and the Florence County Council proposing an incentive package for the venture.

In order for the incentive package to work, Wukela said the TIF that is currently in place must be removed so a multi-county business park can be formed that would allow the county to offer special tax revenue credits to the hotel project for seven years.

Such incentive would save the project dollars during the renovation and first several years of business, allowing the hotel and restaurant to become successfully established.

Based on current tax rates and projected land values, the deal would equal roughly $500,000 in tax credits.

Last week, the county council approved a resolution stating its intention to invest in the project, and to begin the process of removing the properties from the TIF. The city of Florence hopes the construction of the incentive package will set minimum thresholds for future projects that could qualify for similar incentives.

Earlier this week, Smith said that clause was the cause of some concern, saying council may want to consider making similar incentive programs available to other towns in the county that have historic downtown areas.

Wukela said Thursday that because of the complexity of the legal process, the completed deal would most likely not be approved by both governments until the fall.

The city government, Wukela said, is required to have two reading repealing the TIF district and then the county must have three readings on the creation of a business district in historic area of downtown.

The mayor said he hopes the process will walk hand-in-hand, maintaining the same pace and demonstrating each government’s ability to work together.

“It has to happen, one to get the deal done, but the I think it’s an example of these two governments seeing the same goal and working together to achieve that goal, and that’s very significant.”

The next step in the process, Wukela said, will take place Friday morning when the city reviews what the county council passed today. Following that review, the city will then move to rescind the TIF and refine the incentive package, something the mayor said he hopes will be completed by the end of the week.

Part of that package includes funding of dollars toward the purchase of the property, where the hotel will be located. The deal will include $425,000 paid over two years and require the property to use a certain amount of water each year, contributing a minimum amount toward water and sewer funds.

The resolution passed Thursday did not address that aspect of the deal.

Wukela said last week that the complexity of the legal process was expected to move approval of the project into the fall.

Council chairman says Florence County OK with hotel plan

Published: July 20, 201

Florence County Council Chairman K.G. “Rusty” Smith said there are no major hurdles to Florence County signing off on its part of the proposal that would bring a 53-room, upscale boutique hotel to downtown Florence in the near future.

Although discussion of the proposal and the tangled knot of steps the county must take to bring it to fruition are not on the council’s official agenda for its meeting Thursday, Smith said he and his colleagues may take up the matter anyway. And even if they don’t address it this week, Smith said, the plan likely will gain county approval eventually.

“I don’t want to speak for the council,” Smith said, ‘but I would foresee us moving forward on this. I know I’m supportive of it. There are just a lot of legal details to work out. It’s pretty complicated from our end.”

The project, the brainchild of five Florence entrepreneurs, would bring the hotel and an accompanying 180-seat restaurant — the current Victor’s on South Irby Street would move to the new site — to the old downtown area. It would be located on West Evans Street, primarily in the old Schofield Hardware/Cosmos building. The estimated $5.6 million project is the first major private investment project in the downtown area, which city leaders hope to renovate and revitalize.

Smith said county leaders are hoping to do that, too, even though they represent a much larger area with a different constituency.

“I think we all understand that the sustainability of anything in Florence County is dependent upon what happens in our county seat (the city of Florence),” he said. “Hopefully we can become, are becoming, a business Mecca. A big part of that is providing the amenities. It’s one thing to get a job here. We want people to feel good about bringing their families here, too. You’ve got to make the place presentable.”

To help the local development group make downtown, and the city as a whole, more presentable, the city has proposed handing them a nice incentive deal that includes some direct city spending for the site and ongoing tax breaks that city models show would equal about $500,000. That’s based on current tax rates and projected land values.

Council took the first steps toward achieving that end last week when it approved a resolution stating its intention to invest in the project, and to undertake the process of removing the properties in questions from a special tax district in the downtown area. Removing the properties from that district, known as Tax Increment Financing district, would pave the way for the county to create a “Multi-County Industrial Park” at the site. The park is a state vehicle that allows for the greatest amount of tax incentives to be directed towards a particular economic development project.

Pulling properties out of the TIF is complex, however. Both the city and county must take action and each must be sure the other is going to cooperate before moving themselves.

The city plan for the developers is also aimed at future projects and suggests setting minimum thresholds for projects that could qualify for similar incentives. Smith said there was some concern over that clause. He said county council probably would want to consider make similar incentive programs available to other towns in the county that have historic downtown areas that might be ripe for some redevelopment.

“You know, like Lake City for instance,” Smith said. Smith is a native of Lake City and represents that district on council.

That’s not likely to create any kind of city-county controversy. Instead, Smith said, it will probably just make the final document more complicated.

Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela said last week the complexity of the legal process is expected to move approval of the project well into the fall.

Principals in the hotel/restaurant project include Florence attorney Ben Zeigler, architect Randy Key, the Pearce Land Co. LLC, the Raines Development Group and local restaurateur Tim Norwood.

Florence council moves ahead on hotel project

Published: July 11, 2011

Following a three-hour long executive session Monday, the Florence City Council approved a resolution that got the ball rolling on the proposed, downtown Florence hotel project.

The council’s unanimous vote approves the “concept of an incentive program for the development of a boutique hotel and restaurant.”

In a letter to Florence County officials last month, the council said it would be using city money to help purchase the property where the proposed development wiill go on West Evans Street, near the intersection of Dargan Street.

The city wants the county to create a “multi-county industrial park” at the site so that certain tax incentives can be awarded to the business.

City models show the incentives will equal about $500,000.

The project, the brainchild of five Florence entrepreneurs, would bring a 53-room hotel and an accompanying 180-seat restaurant to the old downtown area.

The estimated $5.6 million project is the first major private investment project in the downtown area, which many city leaders hope to renovate and revitalize.

The process of gaining government approval for the project will last well into the fall, said Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela.

New Florence city manager hired

For Immediate Release

The Florence City Council voted today to hire Drew Griffin, City of Florence Director of Public Works, to succeed David Williams as City Manager. Mayor Stephen Wukela explained, after a lengthy executive session, that the City Council had been conducting a search for its new City Manager since current City Manager David Williams announced on January 18, 2011, that he intended to retire effective September 30, 2011, after having completed in excess of 26 years of service with the City.

The Mayor went on to explain that the Council employed the services of a search consulting group, The Mercer Group, Inc. to assist them in the search. The members of the consulting firm that the City contracted with to assist with the search were actually a husband and wife team, Phillip and Kay Robertson. Mr. and Mrs. Robertson undertook the task of compiling a profile job description for the new City Manager after interviewing the Mayor, each Council member, and numerous stakeholders in the community. Unfortunately, the Mayor explained, the Group had not yet finished the profile when Kay Robertson fell from a horse during a weekend horse show and suffered severe head injuries. Tragically, after remaining in a coma for a number of weeks, Mrs. Robertson ultimately passed away due to her injuries.

The Mayor went on to describe that while deciding how to deal with this terrible set of events, and its effect on the job search, Council members, to a person, noted that in drafting the City Manager job profile, the name of Drew Griffin, current Public Works Director, consistently came to mind as epitomizing the characteristics of a good Florence City Manager. Mr. Griffin was the former City Manager of Johnsonville and has worked under current City Manager David Williams for many years, most recently as Public Works Director. Drew Griffin is regarded as hard working, extremely knowledgeable, and honest by each member of Council and the Mayor.

Therefore, the Mayor indicated, it made sense to Council to suspend the City Manager search for one year and to hire on Drew Griffin as interim manager during that time. That is precisely what City Council did by unanimous vote this evening. Council indicated that Mr. Griffin would leave his duties as Public Works Director effective September 1, 2011 and, following a transitional period, would assume the duties of City Manager upon David Williams’ retirement on October 1, 2011.

Wukela Goes To Washington

Mayor Wukela to visit White House

For Immediate Release
June 15, 2011

Mayor Wukela to visit White House

FLORENCE, SC – Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela announced today that he will be traveling to Washington D.C. to join President Barack Obama at a White House reception honoring Young Elected Officials on Friday, June 17th.

“Being invited to the White House by the President of the United States is truly a great honor,” said Mayor Wukela. “I am looking forward to sharing all the exciting things that are happening here in Florence with my colleagues from across the nation and finding new ways help President Obama move this country forward.”

Prior to the reception, Mayor Wukela will be attending a special policy briefing with senior White House and Administration officials on topics including housing, immigration reform, innovation, energy, and job creation.

“This is an exciting opportunity to not only showcase Florence’s many accomplishments and vast potential to a national audience, but also to position our city in a new leadership role here in South Carolina and across America,” Mayor Wukela said. “We are doing great things here in Florence, and that’s the message I’ll be taking to the President.”

Mayor Wukela will be leaving for Washington D.C. on Thursday afternoon and returning Friday night.