Faced with destructive fire, South Carolinians rally to help Georgetown, South Carolina

  • Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scott Harper/Times Fire on the morning of Sept. 25, 2013 destroyed seven buildings in the 700 block of Front Street in historic downtown Georgetown.


Acrid smoke stung the eyes, blotted out the sun and changed the distinctive aroma of Georgetown in the early morning hours of September 25, 2013.

That was when a fire apparently started on the back deck of a restaurant in the 700 block of Front Street.

By mid-day, the beautiful Carolina Blue sky was lit by the sunshine, but a pall of smoke hung over the city.

Local firefighters were joined by their brothers and sisters from a dozen fire departments and the United States Coast Guard as they fought to contain the fire and then put it out. They succeeded, but not before seven buildings were destroyed or damaged so badly that they had to be knocked down.

While the flames were still leaping into the sky and a couple million gallons of water were still being poured on the fires, local residents were on the scene aiding the first responders and their fellow residents. They brought food, water, cots and chairs.

The American Red Cross and Salvation Army were on the scene, and many churches and other groups lent a hand.

While the flames were still burning all-too-brightly, the people of Georgetown were showing the entire state of South Carolina the stuff we’re made of.

Governor Nikki Haley said it well when she commented on two separate occasions how proud she is to be a South Carolinian and how well the people of Georgetown rallied ’round.

A decade ago, when Georgetown Steel, Eagle Electric and other businesses took it in the belly and in the pocketbook, folks pitched in with their work, their support and their money.

For the year that the steel mill was closed, a charitable report showed that Georgetown County residents had the highest per-capita giving of all 46 counties in South Carolina.

Raising money

While the flames burned down seven historic buildings — all at least 100 years old — people were raising money to help their fellow man.

The Georgetown Business Association (GBA) lent its name, its tax ID number and its manpower. First Citizens Bank and other financial institutions agreed to cooperate, and the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and the Georgetown County United Way agreed to work with them to set up the Front Street Fire Relief Fund.

So far, more than $200,000 has been contributed by businesses, by corporations and by individuals. Three girls — cousins — raised $310 to go to the fund.

Churches took up collections, restaurant workers pooled their tips and gave them to displaced workers. Passers-by kicked in money, and people from across the state sent checks.

Others deliberately came to Georgetown to shop and help the businesses that weren’t hurt by the fire but were hurt my a mistaken idea that all of Front Street was closed down.

As time has passed, the anxiety level has faded. Some of the workers have found jobs elsewhere. Many of the businesses who lost everything have found a new location. Some have already reopened in a temporary spot. Others are getting ready to open back up.

And life goes on.

Questions — and answers

Since that late September morning, several homes and businesses have also suffered from fire.

Some people have asked, what about the money in the Front Street Fire Relief Fund? Can I get some of that? Where can I find help?

Others may say, I’d like to donate to one of the other worthy causes, of a burned-out home, or a person who’s suffering from a disease, injury or illness. But I want to be sure the money is being handled properly and going where I want it to go.

Charitable giving

Prompted by questions like these from readers, from some who have suffered from a fire or other tough situation, the Georgetown Times contacted the South Carolina Secretary of State’s office.

You may be familiar with the Angels and Scrooges list. That’s a long-standing effort by various Secretaries of State to shine light on the top 10 charities that do an outstanding job of helping others — the Angels — and the registered charities that spend little of the money they raise on their avowed programs — the Scrooges.

There’s a lot of really good information on the Secretary of State Web site www.sos.sc.gov/ Public_Charities

Charitable organizations

A group that would like to raise money can file online to become a charitable organization.

An organization may be a non-profit, but unless it’s also registered as a charitable organization, it’s not following state law and regulations.

There is a $50 filing fee, which will need to be paid with a Visa or Mastercard if you file online. You will also need to provide the appropriate state and federal forms. Each year, the charity will need to file a financial report.

There is an exemption if you are planning to raise less than $7,500 in a fiscal year. You still have to file for the exemption.

Any group that is set up as a charitable organization has to decide where and how it plans to raise and spend the money.

When the GBA and others set up the Front Street Fire Relief Fund, its focus was to aid those who lived, worked or owned businesses or buildings directly affected by the fire.

With that as a focus or mission, the group has helped raise money specifically for those on Front Street who were affected by that particular fire.

Other fires, diseases or illnesses are not part of the Front Street effort. People who contributed money did so with the expectation that their dollars would be used for the stated purpose.

Most people would likely agree that they wouldn’t want money given to a church meal program, for instance, to be used to buy a musical instrument for a youth program 20 miles away.

Both are worthwhile efforts, but the money to buy the guitar is not going to feed the hungry.

Helping out

Al Joseph, president of the GBA, said that the Front Street Fire Relief Fund distribution committee has helped about 60 displaced workers who have registered through the United Way. They’ve also helped businesses who have not only lost their buildings, but also their inventory, their store fixtures and shelving and pots and pans for restaurants and the like.

Each week, after the distribution committee considers requests and the checks are cut, Joseph stops by the reopening stores to see how things are going.

Just a few days ago, he went into Boardwalk Boutique to see Courtney Cagle. She’s the granddaughter of Jeanette Ard, owner of Colonial Floral Fascinations. Cagle had recently opened her business in the Harborwalk side of the flower shop. And then the fire hit.

When Joseph dropped by, Cagle had a knife in hand ready to cut the straps around a long box she had just received.

Joseph asked for the knife, cut open the box and helped her take out some shelving.

With a smile, Cagle said “That check you brought me paid for those.”

That simple story illustrates the good that is coming from the Front Street Fire Relief Fund. Joseph pointed out that the focus of the fund is strictly for those affected by the Sept. 25 fire.

Follow the rules

In the Secretary of State’s office, the staff deals with several thousand charitable groups and business registrations.

The rules and practices are designed to safeguard the funds that generous people contribute to worthy causes.

If a registered organization is doing the fundraising, then an individual donor doesn’t have to register.

But, staff members say, whoever is going to be doing the fund raising has to register.

There’s an important distinction to keep in mind. A business is by its nature designed to make a profit.

A charitable organization seeks to raise enough money to carry out its mission, but is not a for-profit group. So, a business group generally would not be one that would be raising money.

A separate charitable group can be formed, with a stated mission, purpose, and area to serve.

For instance, the Front Street Fire Relief Fund area of service is included in its name.

If a group of people wanted to establish a separate charitable organization designed to help those affected by fire throughout Georgetown County, they could do so. They would need to register with the Secretary of State’s office and meet other requirements, but then such a group could give funds to anyone who might be affected.

If a neighbor’s house is damaged or destroyed by fire, and an individual wants to contribute money, one-on-one, there’s not a registration requirement. However, if a group puts together a fund-raising campaign to help several people who aren’t in the same family, then the registration requirements would come into play.

Financial accountability

Any charitable group that raises more than $7,500 in a year is required to file a financial report with the Secretary of State’s office. A form is available online to do that.

If you intend to raise less than $7,500, your group may file for an exemption.

If you raise more than $7,500, you need to submit a registration statement. That’s the full-fledged registration application with $50 fee. Within the group’s fiscal year.

The registration renewal and financial report are due 4 1/2 months after the end of the group’s fiscal year.

If the organization operates on a calendar year, the report would be due May 15.

If it continues to solicit within the next fiscal year, then need to go ahead and continue to renew.

Usually, groups such as Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs register as individual groups. If they have their own tax ID, then the Secretary of State requires them to register as an individual group.

If a bona fide church or house of worship, you’re not considered a charitable organization for registration purposes and do not need to file with the office.

People with questions may call or send an e-mail. A staff member will be happy to talk with anybody.

The problem with disaster relief events, a group may pop-up after the fact, It can be problem or complicated. If they notify us, we will help them file.

You can get up to $2,000 fine for each violation of the statute, a staff member said.

We give them notice that they have 15 days to file.

In these kinds of cases, we usually give a courtesy call beforehand, especially in emergency situation.

Getting answers

To avoid problems, it’s best to visit the Web site or contact the office beforehand.


You may call (803) 734-1790.

The physical address is:

SC Secretary of State’s Office, 1205 Pendleton Street, Suite 525, Columbia, SC 29201.

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