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Nonprofit withdraws land swap proposal

GEORGETOWN | Five Rivers Community Development Corp. has withdrawn its request to swap land with Georgetown County for a proposed training and retail center the nonprofit agency wants to build. Georgetown County Council on Tuesday unanimously tabled the land swap, which had been up for final approval. If the proposal is not revived at the council's Sept. 26 meeting, Five Rivers would have to go through the entire approval process again for any future plan involving the county.Beulah White, executive director of Five Rivers, requested the withdrawal in a Sept. 7 letter to council members. ``Thank you for your considerate support of our request relating to the property swap for our community/office facility,'' White wrote to the council members. ``We believe this would have been mutually beneficial to both parties and to our constituents. Respectfully, we are withdrawing our request.''White's request came the same day The Sun News reported that some council members question whether Five Rivers has enough money to build the center.White did not attend Tuesday's meeting and could not be reached for comment.It now is uncertain what Five Rivers will do with 3.03 acres of land it owns near the intersection of U.S. 521 and U.S. 17 Alternate, commonly known as Nine Mile Curve.Five Rivers had wanted to swap that property for three acres of county-owned land adjacent to the Choppee Regional Resource Center on Choppee Road.Five Rivers also wanted to buy two acres of county-owned land at the Choppee site for about $18,000, giving the agency a total of five acres for its training and retail center.Five Rivers can't use the Nine Mile Curve site because the S.C. Department of Transportation will not give the agency an encroachment permit for construction. DOT officials plan to build a cloverleaf intersection near the Five Rivers land.The county could have used the Nine Mile Curve land because it would have access to the property from an adjacent fire station.County Councilman Johnny Morant made the motion Tuesday to table the proposal and County Councilwoman Helen Rudolph seconded. The council voted unanimously without any further discussion.Council members said last week they started questioning the project following an investigation by The Sun News that shows Five Rivers has spent most of the federal money the agency said it planned to use for the training and retail center.Furthermore, grants that the agency said would help pay for the project were never approved.In addition, the Federal Home Loan Bank in Atlanta has been wavering on its commitment to give a $600,000 loan to Five Rivers for the project, according to minutes of the Five Rivers board meetings. The bank wanted Five Rivers to nail down a specific site for the center, according to those minutes. It is not certain what will happen with that loan now that Five Rivers has withdrawn its proposal for the Choppee site.The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development confirmed last week that Five Rivers has withdrawn between $30,000 and $55,000 from its federal appropriations almost every month since December.Five Rivers' operating expenses average about $30,000 a month, according to the agency's financial statements.Those financial statements show Five Rivers is in a cash crunch, with $5,818 in grants and contributions through the first six months of 2006 compared with $187,453 in expenses for the period.As of June 16, the most recent date for which information is available, there was $377,100 left from $1.35 million the agency received from federal appropriations in 2003 and 2004.Five Rivers had said it planned to use those appropriations, also known as earmarks, to help build its training and retail center and pay for some of the agency's programs.A third appropriation, for $145,500, was approved in 2005, but that money can only be used to buy land for the center. Five Rivers has not spent that money.Five Rivers had planned to build a 14,000-square-foot center that would have office and classroom space for Five Rivers and four retail spaces for people who take part in the agency's business program. Five Rivers would make money by renting those spaces to business owners and by renting larger meeting space to community groups.Five Rivers is being investigated by the S.C. secretary of state's office for possible financial wrongdoing. Secretary of State Mark Hammond said that investigation is in the early stages and his office might forward information to the Internal Revenue Service for further review.Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Greg Hembree said last week he thinks a criminal investigation of Five Rivers is imminent, although no agency has requested that his office check to see how the nonprofit agency has spent public money.About two-thirds of the $3.8 million Five Rivers has received since 1996 has come from local, state and federal grants funded by taxpayers. Nearly half of the agency's expenses since 1996 have been for salaries, fringe benefits, travel, health and automobile insurance for staff members, a Volvo automobile for White and other employee-related costs.Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281 or dwren@thesunnews.com.

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