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City to purchase Mather property

Will use watershed property funds for future recreation site

Posted: March 4, 2011 5:05 p.m.
Updated: March 7, 2011 5:00 a.m.

“Hallelujah!” Camden City Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford shouted Thursday afternoon.

Drakeford had just learned she and her fellow council members would get the chance to vote Tuesday to purchase a large portion of the old Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy site. The goal: to use the site as the future home for a recreational complex to replace aging Rhame City Arena.

“I am serious about that. I am really happy today knowing that we have the opportunity to purchase a portion of the Mather property,” Drakeford said. “Back in 2008, DPZ (Duany Plater-Zyberk) said that the city should develop the site. We knew that the Mather tract of land was the largest tract of vacant land in downtown Camden. And I say, what a great site for some type of recreational facility. It’s downtown, it’s in walking distance for those using Rhame Arena and I could see how it would be beneficial to all of us.

“But my thoughts then were we would never be able to afford the price of it. I saw so many possibilities for the property because of its historic significance to the African-American community, the city of Camden and Kershaw County.”

Drakeford said she has been looking into where to build a replacement for Rhame since 2004.

“You have heard me say over and over that I would not agree to (Rhame) coming down until we had some type of replacement. It looks like some time in the future, we will make that happen,” said Drakeford.

She also asked staff to see -- as plans for a recreational complex mature -- that the site be developed to, in some way, incorporate a Mather memorial developed by academy alumna at the T-intersection of Campbell and Rutledge streets.

That may prove physically difficult as the memorial site is surrounded by property not included in the city’s purchase.

What council will be voting on Tuesday is first reading of an ordinance that would authorize the city to purchase property officially located at 823 Campbell St. If approved -- something that seemed likely given Thursday’s work session discussions -- the city would purchase the southern 9.8 acres of the former academy grounds. The division is marked by an old fence running through the middle of the tract some 25 to 50 yards south of the T-intersection.

According to officials, no buildings sat on the portion of the property the city plans to purchase. It was where Mather’s football and other recreational fields were located.

The city will pay the estate of Robert E. David $362,500 for the property, which at one point was marketed at $1 million. The remainder of the property is owned by DeKalb Associates LLC, which is associated with Collett & Associates, a commercial development firm out of Charlotte.

A separate item on Tuesday’s agenda will pave the way to fund the purchase.

In 2000, the city sold 703 acres of watershed property for more than $1 million and restricted it so the funds could only be tapped by a city council resolution. In 2010, council unrestricted $375,000 of those funds to purchase school district properties, most notably the former Pine Tree Hill School that it then sold a portion of to KershawHealth.

Assistant City Manager Mel Pearson said the watershed funds are only earning approximately .6 percent interest. City Manager Kevin Bronson said Tuesday’s vote on a resolution to release another nearly $364,000 (the difference from the purchase price will assist with closing costs) essentially amounts to a “swap of assets.”

Councilman Pat Partin was quick to seize on that point.

“Some in our community will say that we are spending money at the wrong time,” Partin said. “I agree with Kevin: I don’t see this as a purchase but a swap of a non-producing asset for a potentially heavily producing asset.”

Councilman Willard Polk agreed Mather is a “very significant asset.”

“Once we acquire it, we need to very carefully study how to turn a passive asset into an active asset,” said Polk. “We need to make sure we utilize it in the most appropriate way possible.”

Drakeford had said she wasn’t sure who was responsible for making the purchase possible. Councilman Walter Long said he had a pretty good idea.

“I would say one of the people behind it is you,” he told Drakeford. “This is a great use of our funds. As we did with the purchase of the Pine Tree Hill property and sale to the hospital, this is a reinvestment in our community.”

While the idea of replacing Rhame Arena has been on the city’s mind for years, the goal truly gelled for council during a strategic planning session in February. Among its strategic goals for the next 18 months: finding a site to construct a new recreational facility and a partner to operate it. Long mentioned then that the city was already looking for a possible site, now revealed to be the Mather property.

As Drakeford pointed out Thursday, council didn’t want to tear down Rhame Arena until a replacement could be built.

“We know Rhame is dilapidated,” said Partin.

He said finding the means to construct a new complex and a partner to run it could mean Rhame could finally be dealt with.

“We could restore one of our original four corners,” Partin said, harkening back to founding father Joseph Kershaw’s original plan for the town. “Rhame really shouldn’t have been built there. Many people have enjoyed it and still do to this day, (but) we are moving into an area that can be redeveloped.”

Partin hoped the creation of a new complex on the Mather property would prompt some “tender loving care” for the historic homes lining Campbell Street. He also said he hoped moving a recreation facility into the area would bring tourists as well.

“It’s not going to be a ‘gym’ -- council has a broader vision than that,” Partin said.

Polk said it was important to realize that Rhame Arena has served the public for about 50 years.

“It’s booked up for a year in advance,” Polk said. “If we purchase this property, people need to understand we won’t immediately close Rhame. It’s going to take a significant amount of planning and financial resources. This isn’t going to be months away -- looking at some point in the future, we’re way away from this.”

Drakeford said she felt this was Camden’s time.

“Mather was first built in the 1880s. It was the school the children of slaves attended. I have relatives who graduated from there,” said Drakeford. “This is the Lord’s will that this is happening now. To everything there is a season and a time for everything -- I think we’re in our season!”

Mayor Jeffrey Graham will not vote on the Mather purchase since his real estate company, Graham Realty, represents the seller. Bronson said Graham also excused himself from any previous executive session discussions of the matter. Bronson also said neither he nor City Attorney Charles Cushman participated in the negotiations, leaving them to an outside party to represent the city.

Other items on Tuesday’s agenda include consideration of:

• an ordinance authorizing an easement agreement with O’Reily’s Auto Parts on West DeKalb Street;

• a resolution authorizing the consumption of beer and wine during the 24 Hours of LeMons Parade on May 20;

• a resolution authorizing consumption of beer and wine during Meet Me at the Green, April 23 (see accompanying story);

• a $2.6 million bid award to Callahan Grading of York to transport fill dirt and use it to fill a drained wastewater lagoon as part of the preconstruction process for Camden’s new wastewater treatment plant; and

• a proclamation naming March as Disabilities Awareness Month.

Tuesday’s meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. on the second floor of Camden City Hall, 1000 Lyttleton St., and is open to the public.

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