Conway officials issued a verbal warning to the group behind the Conway Free Fridge project, saying the outdoor refrigerator that offers free perishable items to the hungry violates state law.
“I cannot imagine that helping anyone in need through an avenue that requires no application or qualification could be considered a wrong thing, especially if it isn’t breaking the ordinances of the city,” said Laura Edge, who serves on the Conway Free Fridge committee.
Last week, Avery Jones placed a fridge just outside his Main Street business, Conway Cooling. The appliance holds donated perishable 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 stories about similar programs in other cities.
However, the City of Conway said the Conway Free Fridge is in violation a state law that prohibits abandoned refrigerators.
But Tricia Jones said their fridge is fully functional and is in use.
“Therefore, we don’t feel this applies as we are not throwing away fridges,” she said.
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.
“This project unfortunately moved faster than it should have with disregard to make sure those laws were adhered to," city spokeswoman June Wood said. "Public safety is of paramount importance and not something that city staff can simply ignore. We are hopeful that a solution can be found or an alternate location can be identified."
Jones and Edge are confused.
“Honestly, complete puzzlement considering the appliance is only four feet in height and has a separate freezer on top. It has shelving inside and is stocked with food that would have to be removed in order for a child to climb inside,” Edge said.
Tricia Jones said her reactions to the city's decision have been anger, hurt and disbelief.
“You just feel like the city administration doesn’t want to help people," she said. "I’m sure that is not the case, but it’s hard not to feel this way."
City officials said they understand the intentions behind the Conway Free Fridge, but they have to enforce the law.
“While we fully support the motives behind a project like this, with any new endeavor there is due diligence required to make sure that all applicable rules and regulations are being followed,” Wood said.
City Administrator Adam Emrick said safety is paramount, and there are regulations that deal with the danger posed by appliances with airtight lids and children suffocating in them.
“No matter how the refrigerator is operated in this case, if it is outside, unattended, airtight and large enough for a child to climb in, then it is unsafe and we cannot square it with these regulations,” he said.
Emrick said if the group can figure out a way to avoid those issues, “the primary concern is met.”
Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said she’s certainly not opposed to the idea of the Conway Free Fridge, but said she has to lean towards the sentiments from the city.
“I’m so pleased Conway people are passionate and that Conway people care, and care about the less fortunate,” she said. “There are a couple … dangers involved. A single incident of someone being harmed as a result [of the project] could not justify the good that was done.”
A secondary concern though, Emrick said, is that anything done to the exterior of a property in the Central Business District (CBD) or Main Street Corridor must be reviewed and approved by the Community Appearance Board (CAB).
Emrick said the city has cited others for storing appliances outside and not removing doors to make them safe. The city has also cited people for undertaking projects in that district without getting permission from the CAB first.
“Our concern is that we have enforced similar appliances at other locations and it could lead to complaints for overlooking this specific business,” Emrick said.
Usually, these situations are resolved quietly, Emrick said, but he noted that the Conway Free Fridge committee had “moved forward after being told not to” and posted to social media, “knowing they were not in compliance with the city regulations.”
Avery Jones has since moved the refrigerator inside his shop until the situation can be remedied, but those in need can still access it during his shop’s open hours.
Many more people have used the fridge than Jones originally expected.
“Several individuals and couples are leaving or picking up food every day,” he said.
Tricia Jones said she also received an anonymous “Thank you!” note inside the fridge during the first few days it was accessible.
The committee is exploring a few different avenues, including placing smaller, dorm-sized fridges in place of the larger one, a more expensive double-door glass cooler option, or possibly requesting that the Conway City Council create an ordinance that would allow the operation of the fridge.
“The situation is frustrating,” Tricia Jones said. “We really believe in the community fridge program and are willing to do what we can. It is working in other cities in South Carolina. We believe it can work here.”
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. This program is to help anyone in need without question,” Tricia Jones said. “We are hoping to work with the city administrator as to which route [to remedy the situation] would be the quickest.”