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Camden council approves $4 million bond on first reading
City manager outlines plans for Rhame Arena, joint community building
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Camden City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve first reading of an ordinance that would authorize the issuance of an up to $4 million bond to pay for renovations at Rhame Arena and pitch in to the construction of a community building at Central Carolina Technical College’s proposed expanded campus.

City Manager Mel Pearson spent about 20 minutes explaining how the bond will work, the two projects and answering questions, including some concerns brought up by a business owner during public forum.

Pearson said staff does not believe the city will actually have to borrow the full $4 million limit.

“We anticipate that our expenditure for (the) two projects will be a total of $3.3 million. It may be a little less,” he said. “We are still, as you know, in the planning phase of (these) two projects.”

Pearson said staff bundled the two projects together in order to help get a better interest rate and fund both projects with the revenue stream supplied by the city’s 2 percent hospitality tax (HTAX). He also said staff knows the city can commit to the debt service on the bond using HTAX funds for 15 years.

“It makes sense that we go ahead and attempt and recommend to you that we lock those funds up in January of this coming year,” Pearson said.

With the same renderings on display as were shown at a September work session, Pearson acknowledged that doing something -- demolishing and replacing, or renovating -- with Rhame Arena has been discussed for many years.

“It’s not usable for a lot of functions because the roof is not real good, there’s no heating and air conditioning … and it needs a lot of repair,” Pearson said. “But, we have determined, through an engineering effort, that the structure is a very good structure and that it could be renovated. Knowing that, we believe and recommend -- and council, and I think the community has embraced the idea of -- making it look better as well as making it more functional. It is a gateway for one of the largest traffic flows coming in to Camden from the south and our intent, if you pay attention to the renderings, is to make the south end of that building, from an aesthetic standpoint, look as good as the north end, if not better.”

Pearson said the renovations would include HVAC and fire suppression systems.

“We don’t have to put a sprinkler system in the building based on current use, but we’re not renovating this building for (just) a 10-year outlook. We’re going to put a new roof on it. We don’t know what uses might be available for that facility in the future,” he said.

Pearson said the city plans to renovate the building to the same codes as it requires for commercial customers. He also said plans are to pave the parking area, but if the city finds itself needing to save money on the project, it would skimp on parking. In the meantime, other aspects to the renovation also involve adding a small conference room that could seat 35 to 40 people and adding roll-up doors on the eastern and southern sides to transform the arena into an open-air facility.

“As we pursue tourism development -- and I think we have a lot of momentum there now -- we’re finding events and getting requests for wide-open space. We believe that building will become that venue,” Pearson said. “We think it will allow us to attract tourist traffic to Camden and we believe that tourism is one of the assets (where) we have some input and influence over development and improvement in the next few years.”

Pearson also talked the timing for renovating Rhame Arena. He said even with the city trying to borrow the money in January via the bond -- and with engineering plans in place -- staff does not want to disrupt the Kershaw County Parks and Recreation Department’s events that are in place between now and March. Pearson also said the Boykin Spaniel Society has an event scheduled at Rhame Arena in April.

“So, we won’t start construction until after that, but we do anticipate being through with it by the end of August,” he said.

A combination of enhancing tourism and economic development is behind the city’s desire to contribute to the second project using HTAX funding: a joint county-city conference center at the proposed expanded campus at I-20 Exit 98 for Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC), the Kershaw County School District’s (KCSD) Applied Education Technology Campus (ATEC) and Kershaw County Economic Development Office.

According to planning documents Pearson submitted to council during Tuesday’s meeting, Phase 1 of the site expansion would focus on having CCTC fully take over the existing building it shares with the county’s economic development office, constructing an additional CCTC building and constructing a new Kershaw County community building for which the city plans to act as a “junior partner,” according to Pearson. Phase 2 would see the construction of two additional CCTC buildings; Phase 3 would construct the new ATEC facility.

Pearson said the plans, dated Sept. 8, are “very conceptual” and serve as a first draft.

“We believe (the county) will have the economic development features in this facility that they need as well as the conference and banquet facility,” he said.

Pearson focused on that phrase -- “conference and banquet facility” -- for a moment, acknowledging he has been the one to call the project a “convention center,” but that it truly is not that type of facility.

“In some minds, I think it implies a larger facility, or larger activity that a banquet/conference center that we’re talking about that will accommodate 500 people,” he said. “There’s also a drawing that shows ‘breakout’ rooms, storage facilities. Again, all of that is a basic concept. It is not chiseled in stone.”

Pearson said when staff first met with the architects involved, the objective was to focus on two things, starting with a conference center that would help recruit tourism-related activity and traffic.

“We hope that at some point this will help get us (another) hotel in that area out there and, possibly, a small hotel downtown,” Pearson said.

He said the city started out with “lofty numbers” in terms of the people it would like to accommodate at the banquet/conference center. Pearson said the architect’s “realistic approach” helped bring those numbers down to the estimated 500 mentioned Tuesday.

The second focus for the banquet/conference center, Pearson said, is a small business incubator to be housed there.

“It’s something we believe is just a matter of having space and having the possible assistance of a technical school in processing small business incubation,” he said. “That’s the facility we intend to invest our money in.”

Pearson said the total cost for the banquet/conference center would be about $12 million. He said Kershaw County Council has already committed $5 million toward the project. The state, he said, has already committed $1.5 million and anticipates it will commit another $1.5 million. Then there is the city’s $1.5 million from the up to $4 million bond. The remaining $2.5 million, Pearson said, would come from other sources such as some the county may be able to tap into, including grants the city will assist in writing applications.

The objective, he said, is to have funding in place by March and complete plans by April, followed by a bid process leading to construction starting in January 2016.

“That’s only 14 months away,” he said. “A lot of work has to be done and, again, we’re very much in the conceptual stage of this project.”

Pearson then turned to some of the comments made by Bloomsbury Inn owner Katherine Brown during public forum.

Brown expressed several concerns, including her opinion that the city did not properly inform the public about the HTAX bond’s purpose until an Oct. 28 public hearing, calling the process a “rush” to borrow the $4 million. She also said she was concerned about committing any of those funds to building a facility with the county on the CCTC campus for the purpose of economic development in a way that would compete with local businesses.

She also said the bond would lead to an increase in city residential taxes.

Brown said no details were -- and, she said, still are not available -- on the city’s website. She also said the $4 million bond would be added to another $1.3 million in HTAX funds the city has spent during the last 23 months.

“Granted, you do not have to take the money of this bond. But, you intend to, and you will,” Brown said. “And, once this bond is authorized, you will have a blank check to spend $4 million any way that you so desire.”

Brown also levied a charge of council playing politics with the rush to lock in the lower interest rates.

“I read that your rush is based on low rates. Perhaps you should have started this process earlier in the year … but, that could have been a problem for your desired election outcome. Your rush appears to be gaming the system and using the low rates as your excuse,” Brown claimed.

She also questioned whether such a facility would actually attract tourists.

“When was the last time you attended a tourism event at a conference center at a technical college on a non-alcohol campus?” she asked. “If this is a true tourism-attracting center, should it not be downtown on land you already own? Your current plan will contribute to the demise of downtown.”

Brown claimed the mayor told her in October that the purpose of the city’s investment was to help build out the campus and contribute to economic development.

“I’m a strong proponent of economic development. I think that partnering with the county on economic development is a very good thing, but I do not believe hospitality money should be spent on this building which will compete with local meeting venues and is not a tourism return on the investment,” Brown said.

She then repeated her claim the project was not being presented to the public in a transparent manner. She asked council to “stop rushing this vote,” hold open forums on the issue and bond non-HTAX funds if it is going to go forward with assisting the banquet/conference center’s construction.

“Please do not hold hostage the money for Rhame Arena in support of economic development,” Brown concluded.

Pearson agreed CCTC’s designation as a non-alcoholic campus is a sensitive issue to address. He said a team made up of himself, CCTC President Tim Hardee, KCSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan, Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter and State Sen. Vincent Sheheen met Monday to discuss several aspects of the project, including the use of alcohol.

“Hardee … would not allow alcohol in the academic facilities on that campus,” Pearson said. “There will be no alcohol in a Central Carolina Tech facility. The ownership of this project … there is space between the unit that will be used for Central Carolina Tech and the county-Camden economic development, business incubator and office space.”

For funding purposes, Pearson said, the city may have to survey and “plat out” ownership of parts of the campus. He said the county will own the facility the city will participate in funding.

“There are no prohibitions on the use of alcohol in that kind of a facility,” Pearson said, citing research into other, similar facilities which use alcohol, but manage its use in private settings outside of school functions. He said CCTC will have access to the facility. When it does so, Pearson said, alcohol will not be served.

Councilman Walter Long said up until Tuesday night, Brown had brought up some good points, adding he was “shocked” that no one asked any questions about the bond issue at the Oct. 28 public hearing.

“It seemed like it was rushed,” Long said, but reiterated that he feels the CCTC campus expansion “is a huge thing for Kershaw County.” He then asked City Attorney Lawrence Flynn whether that project meets the criteria for HTAX funding as a tourism-related facility.

Flynn said it does.

“We went through the whole analysis … to specifically set out that this is fully intended to drive tourism into the community and, so, the idea of having functions at this facility … will generate additional tourism dollars,” Flynn said.

Long asked what would happen if the Rhame Arena and banquet/conference center projects were funded separately. Pearson indicated it would cause the city to raise taxes by 10 to 11 mills. He also said the money for the banquet facility would then have be raised through a general obligation bond, for which the city does not have enough general obligation capacity to cover.

Long indicated, as did the other members of council, he would be voting in favor of the bond. Councilman Willard Polk confirmed the city’s debt service on the bond would be $285,000 per year, bringing the city’s total HTAX debt service to about 50 percent of expected HTAX annual revenues.

“I think this is great,” Polk said of the projects. “We have been asking to collaborate with other governmental activities. This is a huge step in that direction. I think both of these facilities are a huge asset to the community and, certainly, do well toward our economic development.”

Mayor Tony Scully then asked for the vote, which was unanimous.

(Coming Monday: updates to the city’s Duke Energy Progress contract, a public utility bond re-pricing and word that the city could be owed up to $1 million in local option sales tax funds.)