Editorial: A special opportunity unfolding in Georgetown


2016 study of Georgetown’s industrial waterfront just south and east of its historic district recognized the huge potential for its redevelopment, saying any plan for the area should be aspirational and challenge the status quo and that the site “represents a historic opportunity for community planning in the broadest sense of that term — physically, economically, and socially.” It created a picture of the future for South Carolina’s third-oldest city that could be painted piece by piece.

The Urban Land Institute, which conducted the study, said this transformation would take many years, possibly decades, and things have moved slowly so far. But Georgetown soon will take its first big step.

The State Ports Authority and Georgetown County are doing final due diligence before the authority transfers its 40-acre terminal site on the Sampit River, just east of the U.S. Highway 17 bridge, to the county. No money will change hands, but the state agency gets to keep $3.3 million the Legislature previously set aside to dredge the river. That work never occurred because its $70 million-plus overall cost was deemed a poor investment; even a freshly dredged, 27-foot-deep port could lure only about 20% of the world’s breakbulk cargo ships, which keep getting bigger each year. The port hasn’t handled much cargo in five years.

The state made a little less than $1 million from operations at the Georgetown port last year, mostly from leasing space to companies that store cement and other bulk products on the property, according to reporter David Wren. It’s easy to see that this property has much more economic and social potential than that.

Deeding the property to the county rather than a developer willing to pay the highest price gives Georgetown residents more leverage to ensure it is used in a way they believe will most benefit their city and county. They will have more say over what portion is ultimately privately redeveloped and how much land goes for public use, such as a possible new waterfront park.

But county officials must be savvy in devising a plan.

The good news is there don’t seem to be many preconceptions at this point. As county economic development director Tiffany Harrison tells us: “One thing that we know is that a property like this, with the visibility it has, has the opportunity to be transformational for Georgetown proper as well as the entire county. There is going to be a lot of due diligence and planning as far as its highest and best use. I’m not sure we’re in a position today to say what that is.”

The planning effort for the site will gradually begin in the coming months, as the county finishes its due diligence. The state budget proviso authorizing the transfer sets a June 30, 2023, deadline.

While the Urban Land Institute recommended a mix of commercial, residential and educational uses for the port site — much like how other cities have transformed their former industrial waterfronts to more resident-centered uses — Ms. Harrison said it’s conceivable that other uses could be in the mix.

The 2016 study looked at the Liberty Steel mill, the port property and a few smaller industrial waterfront parcels, about 150 acres in all. The steel mill’s large industrial site is wedged between the port property, the river, U.S. Highway 17 and Georgetown’s downtown, and it’s unknown how the apparent decision to keep the mill open could affect interest in redeveloping the port site. But at least there is now more clarity, which should be helpful.

Still, residents, business owners and others passionate about this coastal city should begin paying attention and thinking about the opportunity suddenly before them. We agree with the study’s conclusion that “transformational change takes vision, persistence, and patience — and then more persistence” and that “It is easy to state, hard to execute, and indispensable for the achievement of Georgetown’s goals.”

The county not only must commit to conducting a robust public planning process but also insist that the public’s desires are factored into the recommendations to as great an extent as possible.

After all, Georgetown residents — not outside consultants or a few influential politicians or business leaders — should decide how they want their area to look in the coming years. And they won’t get a better chance than the opportunity appearing before them soon.

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