Conway’s downtown merchants say they are unified in a three-prong position they are taking on a new Conway City Hall.
They think Conway needs a new city hall, they want it to stay in the downtown area and they don’t want the Conway Chamber of Commerce to move away from its Main Street location.
They believe all three are possible.
Haberdashery co-owner Russell Fowler said he became concerned when he saw that Conway City Councilman William Goldfinch had suggested building the new city hall on Fourth Avenue at or near the site of the old Fourth Avenue Shopping Center.
Fowler and his business partner Tracy Pickens called together a group of 15 to 20 business owners on a recent evening when they agreed that a new $15 million to $20.5 million city hall needs to stay at the proposed location beside the old city hall.
Architects have drawn a plan that shows two or three floors, a secure back entrance, parking and gardens. One problem is the most recent plan shows the Conway Chamber of Commerce’s current building gone. After meeting with city officials, the chamber appointed a committee, with Delan Stevens as its chairman, to study the chamber’s future.
The property that the chamber sits on belongs to the city, but the chamber has a lease on the building until about 2034 so, if they have to move, the chamber wants to be bought out of its lease.
They have hired Conway attorney Morgan Martin to represent them in any legal negotiations, according to Stevens, who said recently that his committee is not ready to reveal its position.
Fowler looks back at the recent history of the downtown area to make his argument for keeping the city hall downtown.
He remembers when Coastal Centre was built how badly it hurt the downtown business climate. That lasted for about 20 years when Conway contracted with the Main Street program, that later became Conway Downtown Alive, to concentrate on reviving the downtown area.
Pickens says, Now they have momentum in the downtown revitalization so it would be to them really detrimental to take away from that.
He believes losing city hall would create more empty buildings, and he and Fowler agree that the downtown doesn’t need that.
Amanda Roof, owner of Amanda’s Collection, wonders if city hall moved what would happen to the empty area beside the old city hall. The new plan calls for the City Hall Annex and the Ike Long planning building to be torn down and their employees moved into a new city hall.
Fowler says it is also convenient for business owners to be able to walk to city hall. When he recently called City Administrator Adam Emrick to talk about an issue he had, Fowler says Emrick was there in seven minutes. That won’t happen if the city hall is moved, he said.
Pickens points out that some of the city’s employees are walking downtown now to eat lunch. That makes money for the restaurants, whose owners are then able to head to other downtown businesses to make purchases and then they have money to shop at still more downtown businesses.
Roof says she thinks the Fourth Avenue site is ideal for commerce, something like a grocery store or an old-fashion five and dime, just not a new city hall. Roof says she’d love to see the downtown footprint expand beyond the four or five block area that it covers now. That would make it more like some popular tourist destinations; Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, for instance.
She points out that the pride of Conway is its riverfront, and she thinks city hall needs to be near it so it can capitalize on it.
She points out that her business is in a 120-year-old building that she has lovingly cared for, and she doesn’t want to just walk away from it.
When Downtown Conway Alive began, Fowler remembers as many as 50 empty buildings downtown, but, Roof said, “…and now we’re alive and well.”
Angie Johnson with Curtains-N-Things agrees with the downtown merchants position about not moving the city hall.
“I think it’s going to hurt the downtown, I really do because we have a lot of customers that shop with us on their lunch hours. We have a lot of customers that go over to pay their parking tickets,” she said.
Johnson said a couple that came from Summerville to pay a speeding ticket recently, walked out of the door of the city hall, looked across the street, saw her business, came over and made some purchases.
She says having a government building downtown gives the area stability and makes people feel safe.
“I just don’t think we need to do anything to take the business away,” she said.
All four of these business owners think that the chamber shouldn’t have to move. All it will take to keep it downtown is a readjustment of the shape or size of the new city hall.
Goldfinch, who appears to be the councilman who got this conversation started,
says he was never adamant about moving city hall to the Fourth Avenue site. He just put that idea on the table as an alternative.
“I’m not deadest on either one,” he said. “Like I’ve always said, I want a functional property that’s accessible.”
He believes it is the consensus of the chamber board that they want to stay in their current location.
He says long ago, the city made a commitment to the chamber and entered a binding contract with its members.
He believes the city has an obligation now to continue to honor that contract.
He isn’t worried about what might go into any empty space left beside the old city hall if it’s moved.
He says they could put a pretty park in there, residences or more retail, all things that would attract people downtown.
He also doesn’t understand why the merchants worry that moving the city hall only four blocks will cause downtown to dry up.
“I don’t understand. Four blocks, I think that is downtown,” he said.
He also points to Horry County’s recent purchase of the old Santee Cooper building that he believes will bring “a whole heck of a lot more employees into Conway on a daily basis than city hall…”
But Goldfinch sees a bigger factor entering into this equation, and that’s how the city can pay $15 million to $20.5 million for a new city hall.
He says the most expensive buildings the city has built so far are the recreation center and the public safety building. They both costs about $5.5 million, he said, pointing out that the estimates for the new city hall come in at three to four times that much.
“The biggest thing is until we figure out how we can pay for this thing or even if we can afford it, grappling over where it’s going to be is sort of a moot point,” he said,
He expects the issue of a new city hall to be discussed at council’s upcoming budget retreat.
If financing isn’t possible, the discussion about location is irrelevant.
“Again, can you design a functional building that’s accessible or are we trying to jam a square peg into a round hole?” he asked.
The merchants do want a new city hall.
“While we are an historic town we need to be looking to the future,” Roof said.
Fowler pointed to a recent Saturday when there wasn’t anything special going on downtown, saying people were walking everywhere.
Roof believes the new Kingston Park is drawing lots of people downtown, and Fowler thinks it’s inspired people to work on their buildings’ facades.
Pickens says he hears people say there isn’t enough parking, but he says if people go to Walmart and walk from an outer parking space to the building, they’ve walked the equivalent of a city block, and going to the back of the store to pick up a carton of milk is about the same as walking another city block.
Downtown, he said, shoppers expect to park directly in front of the store they plan to visit. He’d like to see that mindset changed.
“Think about this. If you have to walk five spaces or even 10 spaces down, that’s not far,” Pickens said.
And Fowler added, now with the recent paintings on the buildings, it’s a pleasant walk.
He also says it’s a safe walk, adding that he sees people walking and jogging around downtown at night. He thinks that’s because downtown is better lighted these days, and having more people around makes them all feel safer.