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The bigger picture

Posted: August 30, 2011 11:33 a.m.
Updated: August 31, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Regarding recreation centers under fire, there’s a larger picture we need to look at.

In the September 2011 issue of Southern Living I read:

“The economic influence of the Newberry Opera House on the surrounding blocks has been enormous: One report puts it at more than $290 million since the building's 1998 reopening. Once-abandoned storefronts are now dotted with upscale restaurants and boutiques.”

I Googled “Newberry Revitalization” to find out more.

By the 1990s, Newberry’s central business district was largely devoid of commercial and social activity -- a virtual ghost town. The Opera House, used for city offices, was in poor condition.

The project started as a citizen initiative. It began with the vision of Dr. James E. Wiseman Jr., who raised the seed money of $100,000 from Newberry High School classmates and 15 community leaders. The group included the president of the local bank, the president of a regional construction company, three lawyers -- one of whom worked in public finance -- a grant writer, the city manager and local business leaders. The project goal: to use the facility as a catalyst for economic development by providing a customer base for retailers and restaurants, stimulating private investment and improvements.

The total price tag: $5 million for construction and $1 million for initial operating budget and miscellaneous construction and non- construction costs for a total of $6 million. A construction loan to the foundation in November 1996 for $3.2 million came from all six banks in Newberry County. No city funds were pledged.  Support came from the state of South Carolina, The Duke Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, The Knight Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and numerous individuals. By fall 1996, $3,230,000 in grants came from Bank of America, BB&T, BellSouth, International Paper, Newberry Federal Savings Bank and the South Carolina Arts Council. TEA-21 Grants ($540,000) were received for streetscape and parks.  

The city council played an important role; it leased the Opera House and the fire station to the foundation and approved the redevelopment plan. Re the mortgage, the city council also authorized $3,250,000 Tax Increment Revenue Bonds, Series 1998, of the City of Newberry. Carolina First required a pledge of the net revenues of the foundation and a mortgage on the Opera House. The redevelopment plan was the keystone to TIF financing.  Success also hinged upon available tax increment revenues. Utility system revenues may provide additional security. Hospitality/accommodations fees have been used in Newberry to provide additional funds for repayment of TIF bonds.

Approximately $12 million in investment was leveraged; over 20 buildings were substantially renovated; and 17 second-floor apartments were created with an outstanding rate of business retention. Seventy-five percent of Opera House patrons reside outside of Newberry County; of these, 11 percent reside outside of South Carolina.

To sustain development, The Newberry Foundation has four projects on the drawing board: the Opera Square development; the old Newberry Hotel; the Oakland Mill revitalization; and the revitalization of downtown Newberry.

They plan to convert the old fire station into a state-of-the-art conference center. They plan to create a tourism division within Newberry Parks and Recreation. They plan to restore the 19th century hotel on the public square. The city is developing the financial structure for the deal and incentivizing it.

A local developer is rehabilitating the 400,000-square-foot Oakland Mill for mixed occupancy, including market rate apartments and housing for Newberry College students. The city is receiving financial assistance from several important partners including the S.C. Department of Commerce, S.C. State Housing and Newberry County.

The Newberry Foundation offers the following advice: Identify a potential economic development asset in your community that will allow you to establish a unique market niche; 2) Be creative throughout the project and do not allow the initial vision to be unduly restricted by resource limitations; and 3) Establish strong partnerships to develop the project concept, financing, implementation strategies and to sustain the effort.

Aside from the shell of the Camden Opera House on Rutledge and Broad, we have much to build on. Camden’s grace and beauty precedes it. Our successful horse industry has risen into art. Beyond that, to repeat the question on everyone’s minds:  where is our economic base? We have shards and pieces of heritage tourism. 

DPZ offers good ideas, most of which, with all due respect, we thought about before they got here. Except for steeplechase, we still have no overriding plan for why large numbers of people, especially families, would visit Camden. 

Consider that the nation was forged twice here, once in the Revolution, and once again in the tragedy of our Civil War from which we emerged stronger and more resolute as a democracy. We were a multi-cultural community before anyone thought of the term. The people who lived here willed the country into being. Where is that energy now? 

According to the Travel Industry Association of America, tourism is big business, the third largest retail sales industry in the country, amounting to about $584 billion in 2000. Tourism is one of the nation’s largest employers, with 7.8 million direct employees and an estimated 11.5 million indirect employees. In 2005 an estimated 68.5 million visitors visited the entire 27 National Heritage Areas (NHA). The impact of this tourism activity is significant to the local economies of each region. Visitors to the entire NHA network generated $8.5 billion in direct and indirect sales last year. These sales were enough to support more than 152,324 jobs, which paid nearly $3.2 billion in wages and salaries.

Consider that in nearby Augusta, they have developed their canal as a National Heritage Area. We have the Wateree River. We have our history. We have everything we need to develop a Heritage Tourism economic base. 

Except for one thing: We need a common will.

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