Friday, October 25, 2013
Jerry Blackmon believes the time is ripe to develop an opportunity for the City of Georgetown.
He and his wife Irene own Goat Island, which roughly parallels Harborwalk and most of the rest of the waterfront in the Sampit River.
He spent 10 to 12 years buying the six parcels of land that make up the larger of the two islands that people call Goat Island.
He will turn 85 in December, and he would like to complete an arrangement to give the land to the City before the end of the year.
The opportunity is for the City to develop Goat Island as quite an amenity.
He would like a boardwalk to be erected along the side of Goat Island facing downtown Georgetown. Tied to that could be boat slips to provide a place for transient boaters to tie up while they’re visiting South Carolina’s third oldest city.
A conceptual plan presented recently to City Council by architect Steve Goggans of SGA Architecture of Pawleys Island also shows nature trails, dry restrooms, camping areas, an observation tower and tree canopy restoration.
Thursday night, Georgetown City Council was to review a plan for the recreational use of Goat Island.
Boating and mooring buoys
For at least a decade, several public and private groups have advocated plans for placing mooring buoys in the Sampit River. Such buoys would give additional places for boats to sit at anchor for a few hours, or days or even weeks.
One significant drawback to many such proposals has been the difficulty of placing mooring buoys where they would not interfere with the boating channel in the Sampit River. The mooring buoys are supposed to have a circumference of 160 feet. While the distance across the river is 500 feet or more in most places, the buoys could impede using the channel.
Dredging and steel mill
On Wednesday, a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives approved its version of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. If that version of the bill is reconciled with a Senate version and keeps a provision inserted by 7th District Congressman Tom Rice, the local port stands a good chance of getting funding to dredge the Georgetown Harbor and the federal channel through Winyah Bay.
Such funding and dredging could mean greater use of the Port of Georgetown. Potential users could include ArcelorMittal’s Georgetown steel mill.
While that is an attractive prospect for keeping existing jobs and even adding other jobs to the local economy, Blackmon says plans for Goat Island could be an added boost.
So long as the steel mill remains operational, Blackmon said last week, the jobs of the 200 or so workers there are quite important to the city, county and region. He doesn’t want to see anyone lose a job.
But at the same time, Blackmon notes, the steel mill is about 45 years old. The aging plant is still capable of producing a lot of steel but he doesn’t expect those jobs will last forever.
“I’m concerned about the employees at the steel mill. If that goes, the employees could lose their jobs.”
One day, he expects, the steel mill will make its final 2,500-pound coil of steel. He neither knows nor predicts when that might happen, but when it does it’s important for the future to have other industries providing jobs for the local workforce.
Part of the solution
Georgetown County has seen vast wealth in its day with naval stores, indigo, rice, agriculture, lumber and pulpwood. It’s also seen deep poverty as those products and raw materials have changed with changing times.
To help brighten the future, a diversified economy is key. Blackmon believes that recreational boating and taking advantage of the natural beauty of the area will help attract and hold even more business and industry.
Good education is another part of the solution, and good jobs for those well-educated young people of Georgetown County will help them return to their home area after earning college degrees.
Natural and man-made beauty
Blackmon first started coming to Georgetown in the 1950s. As with many other people, he was attracted to the beaches, the oak-lined roads, the pine forests and more. Some 25 years ago, he noted, he made a turn off U.S. Highway 17 onto Broad Street.
“But if you don’t know Georgetown, you wouldn’t know Georgetown is here.” Long taken with the beauty of the town and its Historic District, Blackmon had a simple notion.
“I think now is the time Georgetown needs to open up a little bit.”
Developer Vernon Good has worked with Blackmon on a number of projects over the years.
Now, he’s helping his friend and business associate with Goat Island.
“We need a vision about what can be done with Goat Island,” Blackmon said.
See GOAT ISLAND, Page 3B
That vision includes the walkway and boat slips mentioned earlier. There needs to be a way to control the boating. Otherwise, he noted with a nod towards existing derelicts, “People will just tie up their boats and abandon them.”
Part of the agreement Blackmon wants to reach with the City of Georgetown is to have someone — either a city employee or a contract harbormaster — who will check on the boats, make sure no more are abandoned on or near Goat Island, and help give people a chance to enjoy the view of the island, the waterfront and the harbor.
He first bought a part of Goat Island about the time Hurricane Hugo struck the coast of South Carolina in September 1989. There are recollections and photos of boats driven by the waves and tides of Hugo that ended up along Front Street, down by the steel mill and in other places.
“If that were to happen again, [such] boats would do a huge amount of damage, plus an environmental impact.”
Boat slips and a secure boardwalk would lessen such damage, Blackmon said.
Juice it up
“Goat Island would open Georgetown up. It would juice up Georgetown into something special. It would bring in the Maryville section.”
He said the ground — much of Goat Island is wetland — “is not worth as much as the riparian rights. And that’s the real value.”
“If you do this, people will not just abandon boats over there,” Blackmon told the Georgetown Times.
“A fair amount of boating action goes from North Carolina to Charleston.
“This could be a destination. It could be an industry.”
“Boat slips could be put in as needed,” Vernon Good said. He suggested there could be 50 to 60 boat slips to start.
“They really do need to have a management program for boating,” Blackmon said. “They really don’t have it” now.
“If you get people over there,” Good continued, “they will look out for their own property and for their neighbors.”
There also needs to be a pump-out. “You don’t want to have boats coming in here and pumping sewage out in the Sampit River,” Good said.
“This isn’t on the main channel,” he said of the portion of the Sampit River holding Goat Island. “This is basic recreational. Small family boating.”
“This is a charming town. It has all the amenities.”
Right kind of vision
With his ownership of the building where Thomas Café is at 703 Front Street, and the building at 701 Front Street, Blackmon is familiar with the downtown area.
“I see a lot of vacancies on Front Street. I know taxes are big. There’s a lot of turnover.
“Retailers are having a hard time in making it.”
With the right kind of vision, Blackmon and Good say, an already-charming city and waterfront could be even better.
“Can you imagine eating in a restaurant, and watching the 4th of July fireworks?”
Goat Island could be used to set up temporary tents to watch the Wooden Boat Show and other activities along Harborwalk.
A little pontoon ferry could be used to transport 10 to 15 people from Harborwalk to Boat Island.
“It becomes part of what Georgetown is — a destination.”
Blackmon said it would be important to find money to provide the funds necessary to build a boardwalk, boat slips, the walking and nature trails and other simple amenities. “We don’t want to put it on the taxpayer,” he said.
The city should work with environmental groups and find ways to protect Goat Island and use it. “It needs to be environmentally clean.”
“Once you get boats, you will get people,” Good said. “They will keep the island clean and get it cleaned up.”
“We’ve addressed the abandoned boat issue,” he added, and have “given permissions” to deal with them through the appropriate state and federal agencies.
“Georgetown is sitting in the catbird seat,” Blackmon said.
“If I lived here I would love to see activities here. I could brink my kids back here.”
“This becomes an amenity,” Good added. “It’s the icing on the cake you already have.”
“My whole goal is to help the business community so you can help the housing side,” Blackmon said, “and keep people here.”
“If the tax base can be stabilized,” Good said, then it will “increase and the businesses and the homes can grow.”
Over the years, Blackmon has been active in the business world as an engineer, a business owner, a farmer and a tree farm owner.
He’s also served on the Mecklenburg County commission in the Charlotte area for six years, in the North Carolina state senate for six years, and the state’s Ethics Commission for a four-year term. He was actively involved in the Chamber of Commerce for a number of years.
These things allow him to see other things, like the planning that goes into a vibrant and successful community.
“Planning for the future needs to happen,” Blackmon said.
Just across the Georgetown Harbor and around the curve of land occupied by the Bayview Community is the Cravens Grant development. Land there sold at high prices during the housing boom. Now, many of the lots have gone into foreclosure. A lot of people didn’t realize the land was largely made up of dredging “spoils.”
Blackmon said with proper planning, a person could buy a lot for perhaps $20,000. Spend another $50,000 to drive pilings and then build a house for $200,000. That investment of $270,000, multiplied by perhaps 50 houses that could go into the development, would increase the tax base.
Do the math, he suggested.
And that math works out to $13.5 million in home and land value for 50 such houses. That kind of investment could add to the tax base of the city.
Throughout a lengthy interview, Blackmon referred to “the developer” will help him with the transition of Goat Island to the City of Georgetown.
Vernon Good is that developer.
“Jerry and I go back a long time,” Good said. “I get a kick out of this. I’m not going to get a nickel out of this.
“When I see the potential for the town and all it can do, I get excited.”
He doesn’t have a direct connection with Georgetown, but his wife was here for a number of years with Seaport Press and the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s worthy for the city,” Good said. “The city needs to own it.”