The city of Conway is cool with the Conway Free Fridge project.
After initially opposing the perishable food giveaway project and even warning organizers that they could be cited for keeping an abandoned refrigerator, the program received a thumbs up from the city’s Community Appearance Board this week.
“Obviously, we want them to be successful,” said Jessica Hucks, city planner with the City of Conway.
Earlier this month, Avery Jones placed a refrigerator outside his business at 422 Main Street, Conway Cooling. The appliance holds donated items for those in need in a “Take what you need, leave what you can” fashion. Jones’ wife, Tricia, became interested in the project after reading about similar programs in other cities. The fridge is cleaned and refilled on a regular schedule by different individuals on the Conway Free Fridge board.
But city officials voiced concerns about safety and liability. The Joneses said they were told by the city to remove the fridge or face daily fines because a small child could climb inside the appliance and become trapped.
Two other Free Fridges are located in the county: one at Mount Vernon church in Nichols, and another at the James R. Frazier Community Center in Bucksport, but they are not subject to the same restrictions as the one in downtown Conway.
To appease the city, the Joneses took down their Conway Tiger-themed fridge and put up a few smaller ones that were too small for children to fit inside. Then they took their request to the Community Appearance Board.
At the CAB meeting Wednesday, Hucks told the board that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) did not have any say in the matter because the group isn’t selling any food items. And Conway Free Fridge is a nonprofit, meaning there is no need for a business license.
The central issue was the appliance's locking mechanism and safety. Still, Hucks confirmed that as long as there is a lock with a code that could be displayed on the fridge, the fridge could stay.
Tricia Jones said Conway Free Fridge is now affiliated with ChangeX, an organization that helps support community projects such as theirs. Jones told the CAB that the free fridges are global in nature, and across South Carolina there are ones in Rock Hill, Columbia and Charleston.
“We never thought it would be this successful,” she said, adding that the pantry recently has been completely emptied and restocked about every two days.
The Joneses provided photo examples of free fridges in other cities, and board member Troy Roehm liked the fact that many of the other fridge projects had enclosures keeping everything in one spot and safe from the elements.
“So it’s not just sprawling down your sidewalk,” he said.
Since this photo, the group has added a small enclosed pantry for dry goods, and the CAB said they preferred the Conway Tiger-themed fridge over the multiple mini fridges and wanted the pantry painted in a similar “fun” fashion.
The CAB approved the Free Fridge project’s look with the understanding that the code lock would be promptly installed on the large fridge, and that within 90 days they would have enhanced the pantry artwork and arranged a possible enclosure or something that would ensure a “neat appearance” at their location.
Hucks also told the Joneses that their sign saying “Hungry?” was portable and not fixed to the sidewalk, so they would need to meet with the Zoning Board of Appeals to get the signage approved.
Heather Whitley of the CAB said she enjoyed the sign.
“So the cute sign is out, period?” Whitley asked Hucks.
The group will be appealing the signage issue with the Zoning Board of Appeals. The CAB and Hucks did say that until the matter is resolved, the Conway Free Fridge would be allowed to keep their sign on display.
While the Conway Free Fridge committee knows that there are other programs in place to feed the hungry, some operate under strict government guidelines, some can only give food to a family once a month, and many people are without work now due to the pandemic.
“They may be waiting for help,” Tricia Jones said. “This program is to help anyone in need without question.”