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Drawings reveal possible future for Rhame Arena
City Council - Rhame Presentation 3
Camden City Council members Alfred Mae Drakeford (left) and Laurie Parks (right) listen as Camden City Manager Mel Pearson (center) points out a feature on an aerial view of the proposed redesign of Rhame Arena. Looking on (from left) are City Economic Development Director Wade Luther, LTC Associates Lead Designer John Powell and Bobbitt Design Builders Project Developer Matt Culler. - photo by Martin L. Cahn

Jaws dropped at Camden City Council’s Tuesday afternoon work session. Council members, and citizens attending the meeting, expressed excitement over the revelation of what might be Rhame Arena’s future. Representatives from the architectural firm of LTC Associates and engineering firm Bobbitt Design Build, both with offices in Columbia, unveiled initial renderings and floor plans for a vision of Rhame Arena that would serve as a gateway to the city.

“We’re at a place with the project,” City Manager Mel Pearson said, “where you need to see this to make sure that we’re on the right page before we go to a more detailed level of designing what we put inside the building.”

Pearson said while city staff and the firms have a “pretty good feel for the cost” involved of renovating the 28,000-square-foot facility, it might be a couple of weeks before that cost is defined enough to pass on to council.

“Based on our cost estimates available at this time, and based on the cost of a new facility, we believe that we can renovate the building for less than half of the cost of a new building,” Pearson said during a follow-up conversation Thursday afternoon.

He said plans are to put a new roof on the building -- something he called “quite a step” -- and add a new HVAC system. He also noted Kershaw County Recreation Director Joe Eason’s presence at the meeting, saying Eason had been very involved in providing input on the project.

“One of the needs that we have out there is air conditioning for youth programs during the six-month period of the year where (Eason) can’t really have anybody doing anything out there,” Pearson said.

By the time Pearson recognized Eason, LTC and Bobbitt representatives had finished setting up six easels holding renderings of the proposed renovation from different angles.

Bobbitt Project Developer Matt Culler said his firm and LTC worked together with city staff to come up with an “open air” concept of a “multi-function venue” while keeping in mind the various sports activities held there.

LTC Lead Designer John Powell walked council through what they were seeing on the easels. He said the design builds on the arena’s existing framework. While the main entrance would still be on the north side of the arena, facing Bull Street, with ticket booths and concessions stands, the south end of the arena would be remade “on a grand scale,” Powell said, with a “Colonial, classical aesthetic to it,” including brick and stucco.

“What we propose is, using the existing curved path, is coming around to parking between the football stadium and Rhame Arena with access along the east side with a number of … roll doors,” Powell said. “We’re treating this as an open-air facility that can be closed down in inclement weather.”

There would also be a “parking plaza” at the south entrance, he said.

Essentially, people driving up Broad Street from Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site would see the south entrance as a grand portico with columns, echoed with columns along the unopened west wall with high, arched windows.

Whereas the north end -- which will be remade to appear similar to the south entrance -- will be rebuilt to match the existing scale of the building, the south end, Powell said, will be much larger.

“The south end is much taller. To the point where (the north) e-line is around 12 to 14 feet, (the south) line is more like 18 to 20 feet,” he said.

Powell also talked about the possible floor plan of the renovated arena. He said the open-air style could be useful for concerts and other large events. Powell said some type of curtain or other temporary “wall” to separate the basketball courts could be installed. Earlier, Pearson mentioned the possibility of volleyball courts as well.

The floor plan includes an approximately 500-foot interior walking track. Powell said the length can be tweaked, if necessary. The ticket booths and concession stands at the north end would likely be revamped, Powell said, but not as extensively as the locker and bathrooms.

“They’re in pretty poor shape,” he said, indicating a preference for gutting them and “starting over.”

Bobbitt President Ben Wilson said the goal for the overall design was to take features from landmarks such as the Robert Mills Courthouse and Price House and “blend them all together … to make one significant entrance into Camden.”

“You saw our jaws drop,” Camden Mayor Tony Scully remarked as the formal presentation ended. “That should give you some indication of our response.”

Scully brought up the possibility of the Kershaw County Farmers Market moving to the facility in 2015. Pearson said the city has discussed that with market organizers.

“They are considering plans to relocate at this time for the next season and they would relocate down to Historic Camden,” Pearson said. “Whether they choose to relocate to the south end of Historic Camden or the north end is, certainly, their choice. We’ll be happy to accommodate them on the north end at some point in the future.”

Pearson said comments he heard are the Farmers Market would prefer a tent system to being inside a building. Powell said the renovated arena’s design is to be as flexible as possible to accommodate things like the Farmers Market.

Pearson said the timing of the project could be “ambitious,” saying actual renovation work might only take three to four months, but cautioned it still must go through a design process. He said staff might know better when they can start in about two to four weeks. He said Tourism Director Suzi Sale is already booking events for April 2015.

“So, we either can do this thing and get it ready by April, or we probably won’t start until after April and when (Eason’s) programs wind completely down and all we’ve got to deal with is, basically, summer time,” Pearson said.

Councilman Walter Long asked about parking at the refurbished arena, wondering how many spaces would be created in the area between Rhame Arena and Zemp Stadium. Councilman Willard Polk pointed out there are also city-owned grassy lots on the northeast and northwest corners of the Broad and Bull streets intersection that could be -- and have been -- used for parking. Polk did warn, however, that laying asphalt on too many parts of what was once the original town square could negatively impact the historical nature of the area.

In the meantime, Polk praised Bobbitt and LTC’s work.

“Your design concept far exceeds expectations,” he said. “We had a concept. You brought in … I like to call it a ‘retro 1825-1830 classical Greek revival’ and I think you achieved something that clearly makes a statement about our historical nature and what we identify with.”

Pearson said the positive reaction would be taken as a “blessing from council” to move forward.

He confirmed for Councilwoman Laurie Parks that as the arena increases in usage, the cost of maintenance and utilities would go up as well, but a higher revenue stream is hoped to offset those extra costs. Pearson said the hope is the arena would pay for itself. He also expressed hope Eason will be creative with his department’s youth programs in order to “maximize a portion” of the building in a way that won’t conflict with a possible revenue stream for the city through programs and events that draw people in from outside of Kershaw County.

“That’s something that we want to market, just like Joe and the county will want to market their youth programs,” he said.

Thursday, Pearson said the city has been approached several times by organizations looking for large spaces in which to gather.

“Fishing tournaments and things like the Boykin Spaniel Society -- they want a gathering place for before their tournaments start,” Pearson said. “The more we pursue tourism, the more we learn of the opportunities to utilize a building with a lot of space, and that’s something we don’t have right now.”

In other work session business, Camden Economic Development Director Wade Luther updated council on a wayfinding signage proposal that would utilize Camden’s “Classically Carolina” brand. He said the city chose SkyDesign of Atlanta following a request for proposals process. SkyDesign will develop a signage location plan, design drawing, phasing plan and cost estimates for sign development. The signs will include ones as primary and secondary gateway features, directional signage, building identification signs, attraction identification signs, historical markers and a pedestrian information kiosk.

Also during the work session, KershawHealth’s marketing department previewed its new “What Matters Most” promotional advertisements. Council also entered executive session to discuss a contractual matter regarding a construction project.