Camden City Council unanimously passed second and final reading of an ordinance Tuesday night authorizing the execution and delivery of agreements with a developer only referred to as “Project Strong Bow” to redevelop the property commonly referred to as the clock tower building into a boutique hotel.
“(Discussions) have been very positive,” City Manager Mel Pearson said of communication between the city and company during the two weeks since council passed first reading of the ordinance, “and we’re very excited to move forward on the due diligence phase of this project. As we move through this phase, I think we’ll gain more confidence that this is going to be what you want it to be.”
The clock tower building is considered a “defining cultural landmark” in Camden, and once served as an opera house. It was also once Camden City Hall and a movie theater, before being converted to retail use by B.C. Moore & Sons and, later, Peebles. It most recently housed a thrift store used as a charitable revenue stream for an organization in Chesterfield County.
The city repurchased the building in 2014, leasing it to the Chesterfield charity, but with the idea of hopefully having it repurposed at some point for tourism in some fashion.
The city is selling the building to Project Strong Bow for $2. The purchasing company is agreeing to invest a minimum of $6 million to create between 30 to 40 jobs by transforming it into a 45-50 room hotel. Depending on how the company decides to move forward, it will either demolish non-historic portions of the building and reconstruct it into a three-story building of between 33,000-35,000 square feet, or conduct substantial renovation of the existing facility and adding a third story atop the existing structure.
As inducements to have Project Strong Bow follow through with its plans, the city is agreeing to reimburse up to $250,000 in eligible predevelopment costs.
The city will also assist with the identification and coordination of efforts regarding and applicable fees paid for all city and other local permits, including all environmental permits; lend support to the developer should Project Strong Bow need to obtain any additional land use-related approvals; and lend support for variance requests, especially for an anticipated variance to be a three-story hotel.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Katherine Brown, who co-owns the Bloomsbury Inn on Lyttleton Street with her husband, spoke during public forum and asked the city not to charge license and utility fees.
“(There are) no less than 10 bed and breaksfasts operating in the city of Camden, offering nightly rentals,” Brown said, but claimed they are not being charged equal fees. “I am being charged a license fee and increased utilities in accordance with city code. Likewise, I am operating in accordance to your code and the state code. Other properties are being allowed to operate, including online advertising as proof of operations, and are not being held to the same standards, code and financial obligations that Bloomsbury Inn is being held to annually.”
Brown said she is asking that her fees “be equal to the numerous properties operating in the city until which time the city requires all operating properties to pay equal fees.”
Also, council members presented a certificate of recognition to Lytease Barksdale and Winston Lamont Barksdale for their donation of 193 Stowers Street to the city. Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford said the Barksdales’ love for their Kirkwood community was the “driving force” for the donation. “Its location directly across from the city’s Kirkwood Park allows for a seamless expansion of the park,” the mayor said.
Lytease Barksdale said she and her family made the donation in memory of her parents, Clifton and Daisy Alexander.
“Daddy was on the city council for over 20 years and mother was a great activist, community leader and teacher,” Lytease Barksdale said. “They loved Kirkwood and worked very hard to improve it.”
Councilwoman Deborah Davis thanked Barksdale and said the donation will help with the city’s campaign to expand Kirkwood Park. Councilman Jeffrey Graham praised the Barksdale family’s “continued commitment and your parents’ legacy, their passion and love for this community … it doesn’t stop. We’re extremely grateful for that.”
Council also heard a presentation from Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site Executive Director Halie Brazier on recent site improvements. Brazier thanked council for their part, both in funding and individual efforts, to support the work being done at Historic Camden.
Since 2016, Brazier said funding for capital and site projects has included $450,000 in deferred maintenance grants from SCPRT, $37,800 from Kershaw County ATAX, $17,000 from the city of Camden, $10,650 from the Stevens Foundation, and $10,000 from the Central Carolina Community Foundation, plus $3,200 in private donations for the renovated Redoubt and new cannon exhibits.
When she took over three years ago as executive director, Brazier said she had two goals: “to make Historic Camden a premiere tourism destination and to create a space of community pride and activity.”
Brazier said she has implemented various strategies to reach those goals, including working on the buildings on the site and creating new exhibits. Projects at the Kershaw-Cornwallis House include improving rental options by renovating the restrooms, adding new bridal suites, making cosmetic upgrades and repairs to water damaged areas.
In the site’s gift shop, a ramp has been added for greater accessibility, repairs were made to water damaged areas both inside and outside of the building, and “mini-splits” have replaced the loud and inefficient window heating and cooling units, Brazier said.
Other projects on the site include renovating and expanding public restrooms, replacing the blacksmith forge roof and conducting regular cleaning of the pond area for fishing rodeos.
“We now have an annual fishing rodeo with SCDNR,” Brazier said. “One’s coming up on April 27 and we usually have about 350 people come to that. Kids are taught how to fish, they’re given fishing licenses and we stock the pond with catfish. It’s a great experience for families.”
Thanks to a donation from the Central Carolina Foundation, the Redoubt next to the Kershaw-Cornwallis House has been renovated, Brazier said.
“We’ve worked with local historians and community and school groups to rebuild this Redoubt,” she said.
Brazier said volunteers, Boy Scouts, inmates and business partners have also been working to help prepare a site for longleaf pine reforestation and interpretive signage on the Eagle Loop Trail at the battlefield site.
“This is a big effort to try to bring back the longleaf pine forest that existed here in the 18th century,” she said.
In closing, Brazier said the work going on now at Historic Camden is a start, “but we have so much more we want to do.”
Some of those plans include performing deferred maintenance work on the Craven, Drakeford and Bradley houses; replacing fencing around the site; completing the second cannon exhibit in the blacksmith forge; and more.
In other business, council:
• Heard a presentation from Public Works Director Tom Couch regarding the Water Environment Federation’s Arthur Sidney Bedell Award, which was presented to Ray Peterson, deputy director for Public Works, for “outstanding service in the water pollution control field.” Mayor Drakeford thanked Peterson for the work he does for the city. “We are so proud of you and grateful for your service to the city of Camden,” she said. “We know our water’s in good hands.”
• Approved a resolution authorizing the consumption of beer and wine during the Wateree Chapter of Ducks Unlimited’s upcoming non-profit dinner.
• Mayor Drakeford read aloud a letter from Kershaw County Councilman Al Bozard thanking the city for including the All-America City shield on its water tower when it is repainted. It read, “You, better than most know how much blood, sweat and tears were shed in the process to bring home that worthy and valuable designation. It is my earnest desire that ultimately all water towers in the county will join you in the proud celebration of this honor.”
• Held an executive session to discuss contractual matters related to economic development. No action was taken after council returned to open session.