Clock tower building to become boutique hotel

Camden’s clock tower rises above a building that has served as a city hall and opera house, two department stores and a thrift store. The city, which re-purchased the building in 2014, is now negotiating with a yet-to-be-named company to purchase and develop it into a three-story boutique hotel of about 45 to 50 rooms. Council voted on several agreements for the deal, codenamed “Project Strong Bow,” during its meeting Tuesday night.

An early postcard photograph of the clock tower building in downtown Camden shows what the façade facing Broad Street looked like when it was three stories tall and likely was still serving as both city hall and Camden’s opera house.

An unnamed company will invest $6 million to transform a former retail site in the heart of downtown Camden into a boutique hotel.

Camden City Council shared the news during its meeting Tuesday, unveiling the plans in the form of a post-executive session unanimous vote authorizing the execution and delivery of a purchase option agreement, inducement agreement and lease agreement.

“Project Strong Bow” is estimated to create between 30 and 40 jobs by transforming the building atop which the city’s clock tower sits into a 45- to 50-room boutique hotel.

“This is huge news for Camden,” Councilman Stephen Smoak said. “This is not just a ‘good’ day for Camden -- this is a tremendous day. The concept of a downtown hotel is something that has been a goal of this and previous councils for a while.”

 Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford agreed. “City staff has been aggressively pursuing this for the last few years,” Drakeford said. “This is indeed exciting news for Camden, and we are very pleased to move forward with this venture.”

According to information provided in Tuesday night’s agenda packet, “Project Strong Bow” would redevelop the historic clock tower building at the corner of Broad and Rutledge streets into a “full-service, first class” boutique hotel under a national hotelier brand. The developer is a South Carolina company experienced in the acquisition, development, construction, operation and maintenance of hotel facilities with a track record of developing “other successful hotel projects within the state in an economically feasible manner.”

The building once served as Camden City Hall and the city’s opera house. Following the construction of the current city hall in the mid-1950s, the city sold the building to B.C. Moore’s department store, which continued to lease the building after selling it to the Trotter family of Georgetown in 1978. The Trotters later leased the building to Peebles department store and, most recently, Bargain Basket -- a thrift store used as a revenue stream for a Chesterfield County charity.

The building’s history dates back to 1886 when it was built as both the city’s opera house and fourth city hall. Performances took place on the main floor while the upper floors housed city offices. When government functions moved to the current city hall in 1956, the upper floors were demolished in such a way as to leave the clock tower intact, of which the city has always retained ownership.

The city bought the building back from the Trotters in 2014 for $200,000. As part of the “Project Strong Bow” agreements, the city will retain control of the clock tower.

City Manager Mel Pearson said without the current proposed investment, “it’s doubtful that the property (would) ever be returned to its original iconic status,” and praised council members for their vision. “We’ve been working on this for nearly two years and without your strategic planning and desire to see something happen and move downtown forward, this wouldn’t be possible. This is absolutely wonderful for this community and I don’t think there’s a better shot you could take and be successful with than this particular project.”

Pearson added that while there is “a bit of a roll of the dice when you do anything on this scale, but these investors are solid and know what they are doing.”

According to Camden Tourism and Economic Development Director Suzi Sale, the unnamed developers were charmed by Camden from the outset.

“They say they fell in love with Camden, the historic architecture of the clock tower, and the location of the property which they refer to as ‘Main-and-Main,’” Sale said. “But, it was a deeper look into our market research that really propelled them forward. Camden is a perfect fit with the fundamental style and market data points with which this particular investment group has been so successful in other markets.”

While the project is still in the preliminary planning stages, Pearson said the investors and the city agreed it was time to let the public know what their plans are for the property.

“We hope within a very few months there will be some construction going on there,” he added.

The proposal for developing the property includes renovating the current facility into a 45-50 room boutique hotel and is anticipated to entail either: a) demolition of non-historic portions of the existing facility and re-construction to a three-story building comprising a total of 33,000-35,000 square feet or, b) substantial renovation of the existing facility and the addition of a third story on the existing structure.

“This is a perfect use of that particular property,” Smoak said. “I’m confident this will serve as a catalyst for future development in downtown Camden and will be a boost to our existing businesses.”

Councilwoman Deborah Davis said since she moved to Camden 16 years ago, she’s heard the same question: “What is the city going to do with this building?” Davis said the proposed redevelopment of the property will make it “the center of attention in Camden. The folks who are partnering with us on this project are topnotch and know exactly what they are doing. We’re all excited about this and feel like the public will be, too.”

After a brief executive session, council gave enthusiastic first reading of the ordinance approving the option to purchase, inducement and lease agreements.

As part of the incentives and agreements, the city will give the developer the option to purchase the property for just $2, minus the clock tower property, which will be leased, and will split costs with the developer, up to $250,000, on pre-development costs, that include environmental assessments, surveys, feasibility and marketing studies, architectural drawings, development budgets and more.

“Part of the role the city will play is helping develop the plans for the property that will suit you and this community,” Pearson told council. “It’s very important that the façade of this facility be what you want it to be.”

Councilwoman Joanna Craig said historically, Camden has been known for its “grand hotel era and was a major center for tourism when the railroads came through; people would come from all over. I think we have the opportunity now to revisit that and see Camden reclaim its reputation as a hot spot destination and not a pass-through.”

Councilman Jeffrey Graham, who was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting, said he is very excited by the news.

“It’s gratifying to see that because of the investment we’re making in ourselves, in Camden, private groups are willing to make investments here. This is the payoff of making good investments and good decisions,” Graham said.

“Camden has many historical stories,” Sale added, “and this hotel space can be used to tell those stories. Clearly, this new boutique hotel will also be another addition to the portfolio of Camden tourism attractions, as well.”

Boutique hotels are characterized by their smaller size, personalized service and local personality, which can vary dramatically depending on where the property is located. Such properties are designed to blend into the community and reflect the neighborhoods and cultures around them.

(Reposted with permission – Chronicle-Independent/Camden, SC)