A recent letter to the editor provided what amounted to be a dissertation regarding 98 reasons to save an old building located in the Lake Wylie area of York County. I write today to offer 295,658 reasons for the old building to have met its appropriate fate of being demolished.
On March 22, 2012, an application was presented to the York County Hospitality Tax Advisory Committee requesting a total of $295,658 of taxpayer funds “to assist in the preservation of the Laney School in Lake Wylie.” This request was presented to the York County Council for consideration at the regularly scheduled council meeting held on April 9, 2012.
When I received my copy of the application I reviewed it carefully. I realized that this was the same building a fellow council member had county engineering staff inspect several months ago. At that time the owner of the building would simply give it to the county, if only the county would pay the costs to move it. The building was being considered to be moved to a location within Lake Wylie that may someday be a county park. When the county staff presented their review of the facility it quickly became apparent that moving the building down Highway 274 would be both dangerous and expensive, and restoring it would substantially add to that expense. Essentially, the cost and risk associated with the building itself and the moving of the building would likely exceed the cost of simply constructing a new facility of similar size. It reminded me of the time Andy and Barney inherited the task of getting rid of the old cannon in Mayberry; Andy found someone to take the cannon, but the catch was that the Town of Mayberry had to PAY the man to take the cannon off their hands.
So the old building that was not worth moving several months ago was suddenly being touted as a place of historic value, and it must be saved from the wrecking ball immediately. I continued into the application to learn more about the history of the building. There I found a four page document offering the history of the building, but also where the writer notes “that some of the history is sketchy and may have some inaccuracies . . . .” My initial concern about this four-page document was that it was presented to us not on letterhead paper of a historical society or history department of an educational institution, but on simple copy paper; the document was not dated or signed, nor was the author or source of information identified.
From a verifiable, historic viewpoint, the lack of this simple information concerned me.
My next due diligence task in evaluating the proposed project was to visit the building site. I did that the afternoon of April 9, the day of our council meeting. I visited the site, walked around the building, and took some pictures. I spent 16 years in the construction business and feel I am more than capable of analyzing the basic worth and condition of a structure. What I found was an old house; an old house that had been modified many different ways and many different times over the years. And it was in a terrible state of decay. The historical document and the aforementioned letter to editors might allow a reader to conjure up images of a little country schoolhouse, but make no mistake about it, that is simply not what existed in Lake Wylie.
At the council meeting, when the application came before us for consideration, I asked several questions. The questions brought to light to the full council the alarming concerns associated with the application and in the end the applicant sought more time to address these questions. Following the meeting, in fairness to the applicant, I quickly documented my questions and concerns, and routed them to the appropriate county board. My nine points were simple and appropriate. They are abbreviated here.
• Have representatives of the appropriate county committee and/or board visited the site?
• The application contained errors and omitted important facts and I asked that a corrected application be prepared. The true applicant was not listed; the financial request needed to be corrected based on comments made at the council meeting, and finally the application failed to address public ingress and egress for accessing the building once it was moved.
• The application indicated to us that “multiple contractors” had inspected the building and pronounced it “movable and restorable.” I asked for documentation of such inspections as none were provided with the application.
• I sought documentation from the entity making the application the proposed project had been discussed and approved.
• I requested minutes from meetings where the Hospitality Tax Committee and the Rock Hill / York County Convention and Visitors Bureau discussed and subsequently approved the application.
• I requested an asbestos report to confirm this structure was clear of asbestos.
• I requested documentation from the current owner of the structure that they were willing to allow the building to be obtained and moved for the stated purpose. Furthermore, I requested documentation from any and all parties associated with the proposed, final resting spot of the structure, indicating their willingness to allow the facility to sit on their property as well as their willingness to allow public access onto their properties to enter the structure once restored and operational.
• The applicant indicated that the community was “very supportive and enthusiastic” about the proposed project. I asked for this to be documented; this was a request for the applicant to obtain written letters of support from civic organizations identified at our meeting and in the application.
• I sought reputable historical verification, stating that, in order to be stewards of taxpayer money the council needed better historical documentation. What was needed was a review of the historical facts by a historian, as well as copies of newspaper clippings and old photos, which we were led to understand existed and had already been obtained.
It should be noted that the intent, as it turns out, was for a new non-profit to be established for this proposed project, and that the River Hills Community Association worked on the project in a good faith manner and in a community minded effort to help facilitate the potential project. This fact was one of the many reasons a new application was needed. As a whole, the River Hills Community Association should be commended for their willingness to assist with this project.
The majority of the information I sought for the council’s use in truly evaluating this project on merit seemed to be readily available when talking to representatives associated with the application. I made a point to document my questions as quickly as possible due to the tight time frame associated with the potential project; my memorandum was dated and delivered, April 11, 2012; that is inside 48 hours from the discussion at the council meeting that occurred the evening of April 9.
I never received a response to my questions. It is disturbing to me that taxpayers be requested to fund a project quickly and without full evaluation. The owner of the structure had been trying for several years to unload it to anyone willing to take it, so a last minute effort to save it was not going to give me reason to abandon the need for a thorough financial review nor the requirement for the project to have a sound business plan. In the application, the applicant clearly indicates that the Planned Project Revenues “will come from donations, support group fund raisers [sic], and fees for use of the facility.” I translate this type of statement as: we HOPE to raise money and earn money, but if we don’t, the taxpayers will have to support it.
It may well be true that this building for a short time was utilized as a school building and in fact I am almost certain of it. But everything cannot be saved. Prior circumstances do not dictate that government always be the savior.
I certainly feel there is a place for these types of projects within the expenditures of our hospitality tax funds. We all pay into this bucket of money when we eat at our local restaurants. But I take exception when I am asked to evaluate a project with such a thin layer of substance. I take exception to the insinuation that my county needs to learn from this experience. And I take exception to the seemingly haughty attitude towards local gas stations, car washes, auto repair and parts shops; businesses that expand our tax base, provide needed services, and provide employment for many of our exceptional citizens.
For this proposed project I led the effort of the full council to simply ask questions any prudent and responsible steward of taxpayer funds not only is required morally to ask, but has a duty to seek.
I do not offer an apology for my effort.
David T. Bowman of Fort Mill represents District 1 on the York County Council.