Darren Smith hopes the smell of freshly sawed lumber will soon be replaced by the aroma of wood-smoked barbecue at the former Sidewheeler restaurant.
Converting the Waccamaw River landmark into a Southern smokehouse isn’t an overnight task, yet Smith, who also owns Rivertown Bistro, plans to be serving plates of chicken, ribs and tacos by the end of the year.
“We’ve been an institution for 21 years, bringing people to Conway,” he said of the Bistro. “My new restaurant will add to that.”
But Smith’s barbecue place represents just one piece of a larger riverfront redevelopment effort, one that could dramatically change the small city’s landscape in the coming years.
Last week, Burroughs Co. President Egerton Burroughs told Conway leaders that his company plans to sell its valuable riverfront land and historic buildings. The firm needs money to pay off debts, and the selloff could clear the way for new shopping and dining establishments, perhaps even a boutique hotel.
The Burroughs Co. and the Burroughs family has been around for a long, long time. And so we want to make sure, as we sell off things, what is sold off is what the city wants to happen and [provides] quality things that will add to the community and the downtown district.
Egerton Burroughs, president of Burroughs Co.
“Great for downtown, great for our whole area,” Smith said of the idea. “It’s sort of a mutually beneficial thing because they [the Burroughs Co.] want this property developed. Conway wants it. I want another successful restaurant.”
Burroughs insists there’s no master plan yet. The ideas he floated to Conway City Council are still just that, concepts. He said his main purpose in speaking with the city was to explain the company’s plight and ask that Conway officials work with him in finding the best buyers for the property.
“We don’t want to send you a bunch of people you don’t want to talk to, basically, is what we said,” he recalled. “The Burroughs Co. and the Burroughs family has been around for a long, long time. And so we want to make sure, as we sell off things, what is sold off is what the city wants to happen and [provides] quality things that will add to the community and the downtown district.”
Among the proposals that have been discussed are adding housing, creating new retail space in refurbished warehouses and transforming the Peanut Warehouse into a convention center.
Once a popular spot for wedding receptions, the Peanut Warehouse, like some of the company’s other properties, needs extensive remodeling to make it suitable for public use again.
“They’re going to need a lot of work or be demolished,” Burroughs said of the warehouses. “We don’t have the financial wherewithal to do it.”
They just wanted our initial reaction to what they are envisioning for development. I’m thrilled to death. I think it fits hand in hand with our downtown market analysis that we had done a couple of years ago, and helps us address some needs. And I think it is a real economic boost. If we can get downtown housing, I think that increases the population out and about in our historic district, which will be an economic boost to existing business and will spur investment in new business.
Conway Mayor Alys Lawson
Despite the company’s money challenges, city officials are optimistic about Burroughs’ ideas for the riverfront land.
“I’m thrilled to death,” Mayor Alys Lawson said. “It fits hand in hand with our downtown market analysis that we had done a couple of years ago, and helps us address some needs. And I think it is a real economic boost. If we can get downtown housing, I think that increases the population out and about in our historic district, which will be an economic boost to existing business and will spur investment in new business.”
Lawson also remains confident that the old warehouses can be preserved.
“That’s the great part of this plan is that it’s taking these old historic, warehouse buildings and rehabbing them and making them economically viable,” she said. “And so in the end, I think we’re all going to be beneficiaries of that.”
City officials see the riverfront redevelopment blending well with their vision for a new city square at the intersection of Second Avenue and Laurel Street.
Earlier this year, city council budgeted $250,000 for the project, which includes building park and a multi-use venue that could serve as a farmers market or concert hall.
Councilman Randy Alford said he came up with the city square idea during a family trip to Italy last summer.
“They have these squares in every town,” he said. “At night those places are really active. You go by there at 2 o’clock in the afternoon it’s like you’re in the countryside. You go there at 9 o’clock and there’s not three square feet where there’s not a person. ... It’s like Broadway at the Beach at the height of July.”
The question facing city planners now is how to combine the different visions for the city.
“Both the exciting part of it and the challenge is being able to design this space to incorporate elements of the riverfront and elements of the downtown and to tie the two together,” said Adam Emrick, the city’s planning director. “We haven’t really gotten to the point yet where we’ve figured out how to do that.”
Some architecture students from Clemson University met with Conway officials last week to listen to council members’ ideas for the town square. They plan to take those concepts and bring design options back to council later.
Emrick said the square is critical because it provides a link between the historic downtown and the riverfront.
“That will kind of be the bridge,” he said. “We don’t want to cut off one to spite the other.”
While the possibility of a hotel and new shops dominates the conversation, the riverfront has already started seeing some development.
Just a few weeks ago, a live music venue called The Warehouse held a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Co-owner Luke Barefoot said he and a partner acquired the business, which had been called Fats at the Warehouse, in April and revamped the place.
“It’s been well received,” he said of the changes. “We’ve just spruced it up.”
Apart from updating the menu and making the bar non-smoking, the new owners began bringing in local bands to play on weekends.
Barefoot said his business takes up about one-third of the building and he’s in negotiations to gain access to more of the facility, with the goal of providing a rustic-looking, riverfront concert venue. He recently teamed with Lucky Dog Television Productions to host a weekly program that highlights local musicians and songwriters. Eventually, he would like to see The Warehouse hold bluegrass nights, too.
“There’s a huge bluegrass following in this market,” he said. “We’re working on making that happen.”
Barefoot sat in on the council meeting last week and was excited to hear about Burroughs’ plans for the property beside The Warehouse.
“Obviously, a rising tide raises all ships,” he said. “We’re definitely interested in participating in anything we can.”
For Smith, the restaurant owner, a riverfront renaissance would bring an influx of visitors, and not only by land. Some of the development plans he’s seen call for floating docks to be placed beside his smokehouse, which will be called Bonfire.
“As a boater on the river, you put in, you either pack your cooler real full or you go, ‘OK, where are we going to eat lunch today?’” he said. “And there’s never been that destination up here. That’s one of the other reasons why I wanted to do it. Not only for the downtown possibilities, but to bring boaters from way north on the Waccamaw, Georgetown ... all the places that we go on our boat, I want them to come here.”