Group speaks out against city’s proposed purchase of historic Palmetto Compress building

jwilkinson@thestate.comApril 8, 2013 

A group of about two dozen people led by real estate broker and Republican activist Rusty DePass gathered Monday for a news conference in Five Points to express their opposition to the city buying an historic warehouse in The Vista to prevent it from being torn down.

DePass said the city “doesn’t have a very good track record on real estate development,” noting past difficulties with building a convention center hotel, kick-starting urban renewal efforts in Eau Claire and developing the old CCI prison site.

“When we got rid of (former mayor) Bob Coble, I thought this kind of stuff would come to an end,” DePass said.

The group joins Columbia’s hotel and restaurant associations in opposition to the city using up hospitality taxes to back up a loan of up to $7 million to buy the four-story Palmetto Compress building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The chairmen of both the Columbia Hotel and Motel Association and Columbia Restaurant Association boards have said the organizations would sue if the meal-tax money — collected from a 2 percent add-on to restaurant bills — is used to purchase the building.

In a 5-2 vote March 26, City Council cast the first of two votes needed to purchase the building. It currently has a contract with the building’s owners, a large group headed by members of the prominent McNair family, to buy the building for $5.6 million.

The final vote could be held as soon as the April 16 council meeting, city manager Teresa Wilson said last week.

Real estate broker Dick Stanland, a past president of the Historic Columbia Foundation who joined DePass Monday, said he opposes using public funds to buy the building. He said the owners, after two decades of trying to sell the building, should have the right to tear it down.

“I’m a practical preservationist but this is wrong-headed,” he said.

The building had been slated for demolition to make way for a $40 million, 800-bed student housing project. But Ohio-based Edwards Communities pulled the plug on the project when the city Design Development Review Board ruled that it didn’t conform to design guidelines that govern development in USC’s Innovation District, which runs from Assembly Street to the Congaree River in downtown Columbia. The warehouse is located between Blossom and Devine streets.

The demolition of the building has been opposed by a large and well-organized group of preservationists led by Historic Columbia Foundation and the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation.

The building was purchased in 1986 by a group called the Palmetto Preservation Corp. The previous owner, the late Henry Thomas, had applied and received the National Register designation — which does nothing to prevent its demolition — in 1985, prior to the sale.

The 15-member group, inspired by the efforts to turn the old Columbia Mill into what is now the State Museum, included such heavy hitters such as engineering firm founder Wilbur Smith, the late former Gov. Robert McNair and businessman John Lumpkin.

In the 27 years since, the owners said they have had numerous developers look at the building, but none could develop a plan to reuse it due to its thick brick walls and sloping floors.

Preservationists have said they can find a developer or developers to take on the project, but so far have not identified any. City Council voted to purchase the building as a bridge until a developer can be found.

Mayor Steve Benjamin started and then backed away from having the warehouse declared a city landmark, which would have made demolition difficult. Since then, Benjamin has led an effort to save the building and refit it into a multi-use complex, which could include a city history museum.

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