The Conway Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors didn’t discuss Tuesday what it might take to get them to move to make room for a new Conway City Hall, but several members did say they don’t think relocating the chamber into the City’s new building is a good idea.
Past president Delan Stevens said he’s talked to a lot of people with the Chamber and from those discussions, he’s decided that going into a new city hall is not an option.
“We’re the Chamber. We need our own building,” he said.
Conceptual plans for a new Conway City Hall show the building inside the block bounded by Main Street and Laurel Street, Second and Third avenues, with a formal entrance on Main Street and a second entrance on the back. To situate the building the way the preliminary plans are drawn the chamber building needs to go. City Administrator Adam Emrick called the situation as it stands “weird”. The city owns the land, but has leased it to the Chamber. The lease was first set to expire in 2025, but was extended to 2034 when its members wanted to do some refinancing.
After hearing the presentation, Stevens said he appreciated the city staff coming to talk directly with the Chamber board.
“I’m going to say it’s a pretty proven fact, you’re going to build a new city hall here. If this is pretty much a done deal, if we’ve got to go, we need to know,” he said.
Board member Gary Lee said he isn’t trying to stop the city’s plans, but pointed out that the chamber building represents a lot of people, “and it’s poor leadership if we just let it go…This is money.”
Several of the people who attended Tuesday’s meeting wanted to know the schedule for the new building, how much it will cost and where they will go after the Chamber building is gone, but before they find a new home.
Emrick said he hopes to have architectural plans by the summer of 2020 and wants to see construction started soon after that.
“Have you tried to build a building in 12 months?” Board member Jimmy Jordan asked referring to the Chamber’s timeline….”It takes time. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Emrick wondered if building a new home is the answer for the Chamber, saying perhaps they can find a suitable building already out there.
City Councilman Shane Hubbard was the only councilperson at the meeting, although Councilman William Goldfinch offered his opinion in a telephone hookup.
Hubbard said he thinks removing the Chamber building is just one scenario that the City can consider.
“I don’t remember saying, ‘This is it. This is what we’re doing. We’re tearing the chamber building down,’” he said.
However, Lee pointed out that the city has been working on plans for the building for some time and has already put a lot of money into planning it.
“I think the option of saying that we don’t want to go isn’t on the table anymore,” he said.
Emrick’s advice to the chamber was, “I think it behooves the Chamber to start looking at your options.”
Jordan agreed with Stevens that the Chamber needs its own identity, but pointed out that a building would have to be built.
“I think that’s just natural…I’m concerned about your timetable because I don’t like to be in a hurry,” Jordan said.
Chamber board member Tommy Moore has a problem with the new city hall not having a drive thru window where people can pay their water bills, saying he had just used the current one that morning.
Conway deputy administrator/planner Mary Catherine Hyman said she thinks that not having a drive thru can be worked out by partnering with a local bank to take the payments, the way Santee Cooper did when it closed its Conway office.
Emrick and Hyman were both opposed to moving the new city hall out of the area, with Emrick saying it would create a hole in the downtown that could take 20 years to restore. Hyman also pointed out that city officials want to connect downtown with the river and they think that the new building’s design, with closing the off ramp around the Main Street Bridge and replacing it with a garden, will help make the connection. They also want to connect the city’s alleys and come up with a walking plan for the downtown area.
Several of the people at Tuesday’s meeting fretted that the new building will reduce 140 parking spaces to 46 or possibly 100, saying they think the congestion and parking will be problematic.
But Emrick said there is more parking coming to the area around the Peanut Warehouse, the Tractor Shed and Tripp Nealy’s Under the Bridge restaurant planned for the site of the old Jerry Cox Warehouse.
There was also talk about a parking garage, but Emrick estimated the price on that structure at $8 million to $10 million.
Emrick said city officials loved what they saw when they went to see a new city hall in Mount Pleasant and wanted Conway’s to be similar, but it was pointed out that Mount Pleasant moved its city hall out of the downtown area.
City staff then pointed to Columbia and Greenville, two cities that have rebuilt their downtown areas into thriving places filled with lots of new construction.
No one with the Chamber disagreed that Conway needs a new city hall, saying anyone who has been there recently can see that city buildings are overcrowded.
Emrick said they’ve divided one-person offices into two offices, and transformed conference rooms into offices.
When people come to meetings in the City Hall conference room they sometimes find a full house and are forced to stand in the hall.
Hubbard pointed out that removing the Chamber building is just one scenario and he doesn’t think it’s a done deal or at least not for him.
“I think part of this thing is the perception out there is the City is going to tell the Chamber what to do…I must have missed that meeting,” he said, adding that if it isn’t a winning situation or at least a lateral move for the Chamber, he won’t vote for it.
To which Goldfinch added, make that two votes.