When Carol Higgins, the director of the Fort Mill Care Center said earlier this year that she was convinced the facility would have to move as soon as possible, it would have been easy, even understandable, to think she was too anxious.
As it turned out, her instincts were spot-on.
The root of the concern was that the Care Center, operating rent-free in a 1950s-era Fort Mill School District building for the past 14 years, would have to vacate if the property was sold. At the time, school district officials said they weren’t actively marketing the site, although at a public meeting soon after, they mentioned getting an informal inquiry from Leroy Springs & Co., which owns property nearby.
Since then, there’s been no word about an offer from LSC or anyone else who might be interested in the Banks Street land, but the school district did ask the Care Center to vacate by July 1 because the district wants to eliminate the cost of utilities for the site from its next budget. The Care Center uses only some of the space in the Banks Street complex and most of the buildings, including the Center’s food pantry, warehouse and offices, rely on the same heating and cooling units. The vintage HVAC system and the nature of the buildings themselves, designed before energy efficiency was an issue, adds up to utility expenses in the quarter-million dollar range the district pays each year.
Officials wisely decided to move the few school functions still there to the former, recently vacated district office. The district offered the Care Center use of a cafeteria at the Banks Street complex that has an independent power and HVAC system and the Center declined, saying the space is inadequate. Besides, the Care Center would have to vacate that space if the property ever changes hands, which remains likely.
Despite the July 1 deadline, the school district expressed a willingness to work with the Care Center if it needs more time as long as the Center is making a diligent effort to relocate. That’s generosity heaped on top of the decade-plus of not charging rent and picking up the utilities tab and should not go unnoticed.
No one can fault the school district for wanting to divest itself of unneeded, inefficient space and cut expenses. They would otherwise be doing a disservice to taxpayers. We do think, however, that the district should have given the Care Center notice sometime early last year. Finding a suitable building – Higgins is emphatic that it be located in Fort Mill’s downtown area to be the most assessable – will be hard enough; the logistics of moving the pantry and office supplies is a big job for the all-volunteer outfit. Also, if a potential buyer makes an acceptable offer for the property, the district is sure to jump at the deal and the Care Center would be at the mercy of the new owner.
Higgins was wise to start conceptualizing the move before receiving notice, but it remains to be seen how much progress the Care Center makes as spring unfolds. That’s why officials there should start working on an alternative plan. We suggest reaching out to the community and forming a network, not unlike the many animal rescue groups operating here, that can deliver the essential service of providing food and supplies, such as toothpaste and other toiletries to the Center’s clients. Finding office space to process clients’ applications for financial aid will also be needed.
We see churches as the natural temporary solution. There are many of them downtown and they have the necessary features, such as parking and storage space, to make it work.
This would only be a stop-gap measure while the Care Center finds and moves into a new permanent home and we hope it’s one that won’t be needed. But too many local residents in need depend on the Care Center and their ranks could swell depending on any possible fallout from the budget fight in Congress.
Any viable alterative that keeps the Care Center running at any capacity is far preferable to it shutting down completely.