Editorial: Credit Columbia, SC, officials, preservationists in effort to save historic warehouse

. gmelendez@thestate.com

WHILE IT TOOK longer than expected, the pending sale and proposed redevelopment of the Palmetto Compress warehouse is laudable on a couple of levels.

First, it is a deal made possible by the city of Columbia’s much criticized decision to take the unconventional route of purchasing the property and then marketing it for sale in an effort to entice a developer to buy the old warehouse and put it to a new use.

Preservationists had urged city officials to help preserve the structure for adaptive reuse when a development plan called for it to be razed.

Columbia businesswoman Rosie Craig and others were intent on proving that the building could be put to a new use, although the property owners had said they’d spent years looking for such a developer, to no avail.

But Ms. Craig has done just that. State staff writer Jeff Wilkinson reported last week that Ms. Craig had partnered with Philadelphia developer Ron Caplan to purchase the historic warehouse from the city and that the closing on the property was imminent. The warehouse reportedly will be converted into apartments, retail and possibly a hotel, sources close to the project said.

Mr. Caplan, who developed the Olympia and Granby mills into apartments, will be the majority partner. The purchase is for approximately $6 million.

While Ms. Craig noted that she will be only a small player in the deal, her role in helping usher this matter to this point is commendable. Her dogged pursuit of a deal stands as proof that preservationists are willing to put their money where their mouths are and that they intend to be part of the solution when it comes to saving this community’s history. Some portray those who pursue the noble idea of preserving historic structures as obstructionists; that’s certainly not true in this case, which is beginning to look like a success story.

Some taxpayers were understandably concerned when City Council voted to withdraw money from an employee health-care reserve account in order to purchase, improve and maintain the warehouse; the money is to be returned to the account after the sale. The city’s Columbia Development Corp. purchased the building for $5.65 million in 2013. Ms. Craig, who said the profit from the sale covers the city’s expenses, was awarded the bid in October of that year.

We cautioned Columbia officials to examine the risk and to work diligently to sell the property as soon as possible so that the city wouldn’t end up owning it long term, saddling taxpayers with the cost of maintaining it.

Regardless of how successful this endeavor turns out, Columbia shouldn’t make such undertakings a common practice. That’s best left in the hands of private developers. Still, in this case, city officials and preservationists deserve credit.

But the sale of the property is just the beginning.

If the century-old warehouse is successfully developed, it will stand as a sterling example of how, in some instances at least, historic preservation can contribute to local economies.