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Debate continues on Historic Camden requests

Posted: March 28, 2013 5:36 p.m.
Updated: March 29, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Camden City Council spent much of both its Tuesday afternoon work session and regular meeting that evening discussing whether or not to appropriate $187,000 in local source revenue to Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site. Historic Camden Foundation Executive Director Tray Dunaway -- in full 18th century regalia -- made a presentation on one of its two requests during the regular meeting.

Historic Camden is asking council to provide $87,000 during the city’s 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, to assist it with becoming a tourist welcome center. The National Park Service (NPS) affiliated site is also asking for $100,000 to assist in converting its McCaa House into an 18th century tavern.

During the afternoon work session, Councilman Walter Long reiterated his suggestion from council’s March 20 budget work session that the Historic Camden requests be handled by resolution, and not as line items in the local source revenue fund budget. He said the same of a request by Carolina Motorsports Park.

“Previously, we voted by resolution to allocate funds in an instance like this just like with the (S.C.) Equine Center. Any special allocation like that I think needs to be by resolution,” Long said.

City Manager Mel Pearson said staff could prepare such resolutions in time for council’s first meeting in April, but Long said he wasn’t sure that would be possible.

“We had a long discussion about this in the budget work session, but certainly, from my perspective, I need a lot more information to be able to make those informed decisions on if this is a good decision and use of our funds, whether this is a priority for us at this point in time,” Long said.

Pearson reminded council that it has a public hearing scheduled on the budget for April 23 and then two meetings in May to vote to enact that budget. Long asked why the schedule would be impacted. He suggested that by simply moving the requested items into a contingency fund, the public hearing and votes could go on as scheduled. Pearson agreed the resolutions could be passed after the beginning of the fiscal year. However, he asked council not to wait too long to pass them in order to meet potential recipients’ planning schedules.

“I’m going to disagree with you, Mel. We should wait as long as it takes to get all the information that we need,” Long said.

Councilman Willard Polk said they might need to treat all the requested local source revenue items the same way, but that they shouldn’t wait for the fiscal year to begin to make those decisions.

“So, the fact that we got a proposal two weeks ago with this information, you’re ready to vote on it today?” Long asked Polk.

“We’re not voting on it today, Walter,” Polk responded. “We’re discussing it. You’ve raised a procedural issue. If we want to pursue that procedural issue, then we need to pursue it rapidly.”

Long said he was not opposed to that.

During the regular meeting, Dunaway presented the McCaa House project as a picture puzzle with some of those pieces being historical. The project really started 20 years ago when the house was moved to Historic Camden as a gift by Mr. and Mrs. Ned Beard, he said. The house is named for original owner Dr. John McCaa, whose father was a tavern keeper.

“So, we can interpret this building as a tavern,” Dunaway said. “There’s a growing need for ‘experiential tourism’ venues. What we’re looking for is ATAX (accommodations tax) and hospitality tax (HTAX) collections to create a usable pump-priming revenue source to do this restoration project. Right now, the county has given us $41,500 of ATAX money, and we’re asking for the city, through a combination of ATAX and HTAX, $100,000. That’s a lot of money, but when you look at what tourism tax requisites are, you’ll see that we are a tourism-related building. We are a cultural, recreational and an historic facility.”

Dunaway called the interior restoration an “adaptive reuse” of the home as an educational facility, rental facility and, ultimately, an 18th century restaurant. He said the McCaa project would involve three phases: first, assistance from the city in conducting the restoration; second, equipping the facility to interpret as a tavern; and, third, creating a “unique South Carolina rental venue.”

“Now, this is way in the future,” Dunaway said of renting the space. “People don’t think of museums as places to eat, but when you go to Colonial Willamsburg, you have multiple taverns that are there for visitors…”

At that point, and dressed in period dresses and bonnets, Historic Camden Executive Director Joanna Craig and two assistants entered the chamber and served members of council and some people in the audience with small plates of food.

“… and what better way to understand how things work in an 18th century tavern than to be treated to an 18th century snack? I want to point out, we are not in the restaurant business. But, it could generate this type of response,” Dunaway said, acknowledging the reactions in the room.

He also emphasized that Historic Camden would not be competing with local restaurants, either, because it would utilize a caterer’s kitchen, not a commercial one.

“We will not have that. Interested local restaurants can bid on … lunchtime, initially, and then it might even offer full dinner. But, again, that is not our business. We would have a rental agreement,” Dunaway said.

The tavern, by necessity, he said, would use local restaurants and entertainment resources. Also, Dunaway said, Historic Camden would hold no permanent liquor license of its own -- that would be the responsibility of whoever rents the space.

“We are not funding a bar, here,” Dunaway declared. “It includes the standard and requisite features of any 18th century tavern -- a caged bar -- (which) served many functions, but it is not a saloon.

“What tourists want today, especially heritage tourism, is they want authenticity … they want, basically, experiences. And what better way than if you can experience the five sensational experiences of seeing, touching, smelling, hearing than enjoying 18th century food -- the sight, the aroma, the flavor, the feel -- and when you look at what we provide with that, that is an experiential tourism venue.”

The one thing people see in pictures of other 18th century tavern venues, Dunaway said, gesturing to one of his slides, is smiles. People take pictures of the experience and put them on Facebook and blog about them, he said.

“As an emerging tourism venue, we have nothing like it -- and I would point out again -- there is nothing like it in the entire state of South Carolina. We would be the only 18th century tavern,” Dunaway said. “This is history, this is Camden history. This building was created by Camden craftsmen. It would offer a unique venue for any tourism that would offer not only a magnet for tourism from the interstate but set up a wonderful place for people to come and experience the 18th century,” Dunaway said, concluding his remarks to applause.

Council members spent considerable time asking Dunaway questions about and commenting on both the McCaa Tavern concept and adding welcome center responsibilities to Historic Camden.

Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford noted that during council budget work session, members had discussed Historic Camden’s needs and that it appeared to center around staffing issues -- how would Historic Camden plan to staff both the McCaa House and visitors center in the years to come, she asked, when it does not have enough to operate as it does now?

Dunaway said Craig is currently the only full-time staff person at Historic Camden. Every time someone comes in to the main office and gift shop, he said, Craig must stop her directorship duties and take care of visitors. If they are coming for a tour, she must then close the shop and office, Dunaway said.

“So, the way to increase staff is to increase business at Historic Camden. So, if we had more people come to Historic Camden, and they chose to make a donation -- remember, there’s no charge for people coming to Historic Camden, it’s free,” Dunaway said, acknowledging nominal fees to tour the Kershaw-Cornwallis House. “So, that’s the only revenue source we generate other than gift shop sales. But if people come to Historic Camden and spend more in the gift shop, we would generate more revenue.”

Drakeford asked about a claim that Historic Camden receives 20,000 or more visitors each year. Dunaway said they have data it must provide to the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to support that claim. Drakeford also said the city has spent considerable funds to bury cable lines, and move a sewer pump station and associated sewer lines, which have enhanced Historic Camden.

Dunaway, however, said those projects benefitted the entire community and only Historic Camden indirectly. Furthermore, he said the city’s only direct contribution to Historic Camden in 2012 was $15,300, $12,000 of which he said was returned to the city in electric utility payments.

“That leaves us about $3,300 to just go nuts with,” he said. “I understand the perspective of the city, as far as donation of money to Historic Camden, (but) when it’s a donation in a utility fashion that is going to support a neighborhood and not Historic Camden with our three toilets, and bury the underground line at Historic Camden as you are burying them throughout the city, I don’t see where that’s a direct financial contribution to something that will grow the tourism industry.”

Long reiterated his concerns of using public funds to support a venue that could, in whatever manner, serve alcohol. Dunaway, in turn, reiterated that Historic Camden is only looking for assistance with the Phase I restoration of the interior. Long, saying he had spoken with residents and others about the welcome center concept, turned to a $40,000 staffing figure in the request. Dunaway said $87,000 is what Historic Camden believes it needs to be a welcome center, but said half that figure would be supplied by the city, half by the county. Included in that number, he said, is the ongoing expense of two staffers at about $20,000 a year each. That would be the only ongoing commitment Historic Camden is seeking from the city, he said. Dunaway said those positions would actually be part-time, alleviating the need to offer benefits.

Long said he has recently learned more about what the chamber does as a visitor center and agreed a welcome center needed to be open seven days a week. He also said the city deferred some funds from the chamber to pay for the joint city-county tourism director, and that may be why the chamber could not be open on Sundays. Long said he did not want to duplicate what the chamber is already doing nor just to alleviate Historic Camden’s deferred needs.

Mayor Scully appealed to finding common ground.

“It seems to me … that both the chamber and Historic Camden are incredibly, vitally necessary to this city. They both, in their own way, are welcoming -- the chamber especially to businesses and people looking for residential properties,” Scully said. “I just thought, perhaps, that sometime in the near future, there couldn’t be some kind of discussions -- whether via a town meeting or private discussion in the spirit of collegiality and friendship -- (to see if) you couldn’t apportion your different tasks and see who would like to do what and when so there’s not this either/or thing because it doesn’t serve the needs of the community. It’s not an either/or, it’s sharing.”

Drakeford, however, said she was still trying to grasp how Historic Camden could do what it wants when it can’t do what it does now with its present staff. Dunaway agreed it could not -- that serving as a visitor center is just an idea.

“We would not take over any visitor center function without funding, and if you choose not to fund it, then we wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

The idea that council might not assist Historic Camden appeared to upset Polk.

“Dick Lloyd, who has long since left us, and many other folks who have long since left us, had the vision, 40, 50 years ago, to invest in our historical assets,” Polk said, including the Price, Douglas Reed and Bonds Conway houses, striking council’s dais as he mentioned each one, his voice rising in volume. “Investments made in 106 acres of significant property that many people who visit this town, and many people who live in this town, do not distinguish between Historic Camden property and the city. The city, back in those days, had the great vision to support these activities.”

Polk said he viewed the request as an investment in the city; not a “selfish request,” but seed money. He said becoming a welcome center could assist Historic Camden’s quest for full NPS status which, he said, could benefit the entire community.

“Now, in regard to the issue of public funds being used to fund alcohol-related activities,” Polk continued, “I will submit that we spent a significant amount of public funds in the construction of the Town Green which does, in fact, have alcoholic beverages served on its premises with the vendors buying alcohol beverage licenses, as I understand would be true at the McCaa House.”

At that point, Long attempted, unsuccessfully, to interrupt Polk so he could ask Dunaway if Historic Camden would apply for a permit for each event.

Meanwhile, Polk turned to Drakeford’s comments about the infrastructure improvements around Historic Camden. He noted that the city is spending around $1.5 million on underground improvements along Broad Street which runs by Historic Camden. He agreed with Dunaway that it only benefits the site as it benefits the entire city and said much the same of the other improvements Drakeford mentioned.

Councilwoman Laurie Parks said she has visited working taverns in several places.

“I have taken school groups to Historic Williamsburg where we spent big bucks -- yes, big bucks -- to eat as a middle school class in a tavern for that entire historic experience,” Parks said. “I’ve taken class trips where we ate at Disney. Where did we eat? At the historic tavern right next to the Hall of Presidents. Where do most families eat when traveling in the U.K.? Not in an expensive restaurant but in taverns. Do they serve alcohol? Sometimes, but not usually, certainly not to school classes. So, I welcome (this) opportunity … because this is unique, there is nothing here that is possibly like that and we will get tourism dollars from everywhere.”

After Parks’ comments, Long took the time to respond to Polk.

“You can’t compare those two,” Long said of the Town Green and McCaa Tavern, “it’s not apples to apples. You have a Town Green that we had to, essentially, create because we had to fix the underground stormwater system. We made that investment to make the Town Green beyond that. The fact that there are events out there like the Fine Arts Center has put on for this city, the vendors have to get permits. The city is not actually serving or funding the alcohol itself. Vendors have to get permits.”

Dunaway said he wanted to make sure Long was clear on this issue: it would be whoever rents the tavern’s responsibility to meet whatever liquor laws need to be obeyed. He did say that Historic Camden would like to have a “tavern night” at McCaa and, in those instances, then Historic Camden would obtain a license of its own for those events.

“I’m interested to hear how this is received (by the public),” Long said. “I’m not here -- and I hope you’re not taking it this way -- I’m sorry if Mr. Polk feels that I’m being combative -- by his tone, it makes me feel as if I must have said something that made him combative -- that’s not the reason for my questions. I just need to have the information to be able to make a decision, to know what’s a priority for us as we move forward allocating funds … to the various people that are requesting (them).”

Dunaway said he understood that it was important for council to pursue that. He also said that he went to a number of restaurant owners about the McCaa Tavern concept.

“I asked them, ‘Would you considers us as competition?’ They laughed,” he said.

Long said he had such conversations as well in order to determine where to invest city funds which will provide the “biggest bang for our buck.” He also said that he felt council was getting closer to having the answers it needs to make those decisions.

“I may not agree with what you’re looking at here, I may not vote in favor of it, and that’s OK. If the (majority of) council decides to move forward, that’s perfectly fine, too,” Long said. “I do appreciate you’re being here. I appreciate what you do for Historic Camden -- I appreciate all the volunteers at Historic Camden. It is a gem for our city.”

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