Three years after a fire tore through the 700 block of the city of Georgetown’s historic downtown, claiming eight buildings, not much has changed externally – with one notable exception.
The exception: Where once apartments that people called home and the homes of Zest, Limpin’ Jane’s, Buzz’s Roost, Harborwalk Books, Colonial Floral Fascinations, Doodlebugs, Goudelock & Co. and Boardwalk Markette, there now is a fence that stretches the entire block.
The owner of one of the eight buildings on the block has filed a lawsuit against the owners of Limpin’ Jane’s, the restaurant behind which the fire broke out, and the owner of the building that housed Limpin’ Jane’s.
Jeanette Ard filed the lawsuit on Sept. 15 against BCSTT Enterprises LLC, the parent company for Limpin’ Jane’s and Long Shot LLC, the building’s owner. She contends in the suit that the restaurant owners used linseed oil to refurbish furniture, and rags containing the oil were improperly disposed of on the restaurant’s deck. That oil ignited and led to the fire, which cost Ard her home and business.
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Bryan Shepler, a partner in Limpin’ Jane’s, who has since moved to Beaufort, did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Steve Timmons, the owner of 713 Front Street, who now owns six of the eight sites in the 700 block, had not seen the lawsuit and had no comment.
A second lawsuit against the same entities was filed Friday on behalf of John Cranston, a partner in the former Zest restaurant and owner of Seven Hundred Modern. Zest sat 120 diners; Seven Hundred seats 40.
Today, all around the block, restaurants and retail stores dot the waterfront and the other side of Front Street. There may be fewer empty storefronts, but people still come downtown to eat, to meet up in the parks or green spaces or at the clock, to attend performances by Swamp Fox Players, and for special events such as the annual Wooden Boat Show and the Taste of Georgetown.
No one is going to want to pay enough rent to support a new building. The real barrier right now is the Georgetown economy. With new construction, the numbers don’t meet. It’s not even close.
And development in that block may remain stagnant.
“No one is going to want to pay enough rent to support a new building,” said Timmons. “The real barrier right now is the Georgetown economy. With new construction, the numbers don’t meet. It’s not even close.”
Tee Miller, who owns one of the building sites and is the city’s economic development director, agrees.
“The costs to build are much higher than the amount of rent. There needs to be change in the market.”
The city’s focus, too, has changed. Immediately after the fire, promises flew that the store owners would rebuild and the block would be reinvigorated. Those ideas, however, have fallen behind a much bigger initiative: the fate of the ArcelorMittal Georgetown steel mill site.
“The ULI study on the steel mill property – that will affect the whole city,” said Timmons. The Urban Land Institute had spent the week of March 19 in Georgetown, talking to city and county officials, business owners, residents, and others with a vested interest in the community. It presented a preliminary plan – “about 95 percent complete,” said ULI leader Alex J. Rose, senior vice president of development at the Continental Development Corp. in El Segundo, Calif. – for the site and suggestions on how to realize that plan.
The costs to build are much higher than the amount of rent. There needs to be change in the market.
“The ULI study may help give focus, not only to downtown, but to the whole area,” Miller said.
Timmons, who also owns buildings in the 900 block of Front Street, is in no hurry to rebuild in the 700 block. “That’s a special property and deserves something special. You don’t want to just throw something up that in 5 years they’ll say ‘Why in the world did you put that inadequate structure there,’ but you’re stuck with it for the next 50 years,” he said. “I’d rather wait until the economy can support it.”
For now, people wait.
Ard, a former city councilwoman and the owner of Colonial Florist, still tears up when she talks of what she lost.
“I will rebuild,” she says with confidence. “...I’ve got a permit for my deck, and I’ve got some preliminary drawings.”
Like others who were affected by the fire, she has moved her business to the 900 block, joined by Doodlebugs, Buzz’s Roost and Seven Hundred Modern, the successor to Zest, but her heart is in the 700 block. She wants to move back, but the question is when.
“I wouldn’t even go with a time-line,” she said. “I’m not pressured to rebuild. I pay taxes on the property every year. I look on those taxes as an investment in my future. It will increase as property values go up.”
The thing is, Georgetown is a natural; Charleston’s packed up, Myrtle Beach is packed up. I’m looking at a 6- to 10-year window, (to rebuild) but I’m not holding my breath.
The other tenants are making do in some cases. Seven Hundred, for instance, went from a 120-seat restaurant that was beginning to make its mark before the fire, to a 40-seater. They would like to move back, when the 700 block is rebuilt..
“The thing is, Georgetown is a natural; Charleston’s packed up, Myrtle Beach is packed up. I’m looking at a 6- to 10-year window (to rebuild) but I’m not holding my breath,” Timmons said.
He’s talked to city officials about putting food trucks and a small entertainment area on his lot, but that would require a buy-in from the city. And there are no guarantees.
“We’re kind of waiting for someone to jump in and say, ‘The water’s fine,’” Miller said.