A welcome center, museum, amphitheater and green space for walking and other outdoor activities are part of the City of Bamberg’s newly released master plan for downtown revitalization.
Bamberg County and the City of Bamberg have partnered to create the plan for which the Lower Savannah Council of Governments was able to secure the services of North Charleston-based Stantec Consulting Services.
‘Something has to be done’
Bamberg Mayor Nancy Foster said the first phase of the downtown revitalization project, which she estimates will start within the “next month or so,” includes the development of a walking park with green space and small amphitheater.
The first phase work will be funded with the help of a nearly $40,000 grant from the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department’s Park and Recreation Development Fund.
“The timeline on the park area is immediate. We have the money. So we to have to use it. We’re trying to make it a friendly walking area,” Foster said.
The park will occupy a vacant space on Main Highway that had been the site of blighted buildings that were destroyed in a massive fire in March 2019. Bamberg County and the City of Bamberg coordinated the removal of the buildings, and the county obtained ownership of the lots to provide for the property’s rehabilitation and reuse.
“We don’t own all of the buildings. We’re relying on the owners to fix up their buildings, but we do have a plan and sort of an architectural scheme that we want to follow. We did a rendering of the old city hall building that has been bought by Southeastern Housing. We have like four owners down there,” Foster said.
One downtown building is slated to become a welcome center for both the city and county. There was $150,000 set aside for a welcome center and tourism building in Bamberg as one of the projects included under a capital projects sales tax referendum approved by Bamberg County voters in November 2018.
“That is going to be restored with 1-cent (capital sales tax) money. That’s one of the buildings and, of course, we’re working with the new owners. The owner of the building next door to my real estate office has just put doors on and has been working inside. There’s two buildings right next to my building that’s been bought and there’s the old city hall building,” the mayor said.
Foster added, “As far as all the other landscaping, we planned for some parking downtown. People won’t park downtown. So we’ve added some spaces for some parking and landscaping. We’re going to be involved with DOT with that. So it’s a process, but you’ve got to have a plan.
How will the remainder of the plan be paid for?
“We’re looking for grants, we’re looking for new investors. A lot of it depends on people who restore their buildings downtown. Once they do their buildings, the landscaping and the parking and all is kind of left up to the highway department,” the mayor said.
“But we do hope to get some more money from the Department of Transportation and also maybe some more money for the blighted area. So we’re working on all of that. We don’t have it all secure, but we do have the park ready to go. That’ll be the first step,” she said.
Foster said she had been working on a downtown revitalization plan for several years, more specifically since she became mayor in 2017.
“I worked with the Lower Savannah Council of Governments. They came and brought a plan. Then we worked with Smart Growth America, and they brought a plan. We had a lot of public input with those two plans. Then we gave those two extensive plans to Stantec, and they incorporated those plans into what you see today,” the mayor said.
Washington, D.C., group Smart Growth America hosted a free, two-day workshop in November 2016 at the City Civic Center to help the city plan for a future that includes a new generation working and living in the city.
The city and county began working on the plan in 2019. Bamberg County officials, for example, worked with state and federal officials to obtain the deeds to the five parcels where the burned buildings once stood.
“People just don’t know what a process it’s been in order to get this work done. We can now start working. We’re talking about adding a museum. That’s what we hope to get,” Foster said, noting that the city and county plan to work with 6th District Congressman Jim Clyburn on securing funds to make the museum project a reality.
“Downtown is my passion. In fact, it’s probably why I ran for mayor. Something has to be done with downtown. We have beautiful residential areas in Bamberg. We have a national historic district here with 60-plus properties that’s listed on the National Register (of Historic Places) in Washington, but our downtown needs to be either destroyed, which is what some people want to see happen, or it needs to be fixed,” the mayor said.
She said the black railings that currently line downtown are not included in the downtown revitalization plan.
“They’re not in the plan. They’re taken down,” she said, noting that she hopes to bring the current master plan to life.
‘I don’t agree with the timing’
The plan's elements include providing updated structures for retail, restaurant and cultural uses; fostering connectivity with the provision of parking, sidewalks and green space parks; and highlighting the unique history and culture of Bamberg.
“I want it (downtown) to look just like that plan you see. I want to get rid of the blight. I’m very much a historian. I won’t deny that at all. I love those old buildings, but a lot of people don’t love them. All they see is ugly buildings and an ugly downtown. So we have to make it attractive and for Bamberg to kind of be a whole and a part of the rest of the community,” she said.
Foster continued, “We’re really growing a little bit. People say we’re not, but we announced nine new businesses at the city council meeting last month (January). We’ve got some really nice businesses. ... So my thing is the downtown area seems to be the spot that everybody thinks needs to be restored or fixed, and it does. We need to make it attractive.
“At one time we had trees and plants downtown, but they are no more. You need to soften it. We need some trees and some shrubbery just to make it attractive.”
The mayor said she is pushing for the owners of downtown buildings to “do what they need to do” to make the downtown area more visually appealing.
“Everybody’s been sent a letter saying that they have to bring their buildings into compliance. They need to fix them up,” she said, noting that the master plan also called for new lighting and pedestrian crossings.
The City of Bamberg will hold its mayoral election on April 6, with Foster running against challengers Jeff Deibel and Joy Haynes for the position.
Foster said the election was not play a factor in the release of the master plan for downtown development.
“Not really. I’ve had the plans in my hand, and the council has worked with the county. Everybody’s been working on the plan together. No. It’s just that it came to fruition at this point,” she said.
Deibel said he would have liked to have seen a comprehensive citywide master plan developed first.
“Bamberg is facing many challenges, not just the issue of the embarrassing condition in the downtown area. The city as a whole has multiple problems and needs a complete review of its priorities that will better serve the needs of all of our citizens,” he said.
Deibel added, “As an owner, investor and developer of properties in the downtown, I have valid concerns with the ways and means involved in the final master plan recently announced by the current mayor. ... Even though I’m vested in the idea of a revitalization project, I don’t agree with the timing and believe a comprehensive citywide master plan should have come first.”
Deibel said a revitalization plan should be a broader focus.
“To narrowly focus on the southern-most portion of the downtown area is a mistake and is just another example of how our elected officials are missing the mark. For the city to push a final revitalization plan without a referendum that is based on landscaping, parking lots and murals on walls with the hope of attracting private investment to renovate a bunch of old rundown buildings is simply unrealistic,” he said.
The developer added, “I definitely don't like the idea of funding speculative projects on a piecemeal basis, or on the back of our overburdened taxpayers. Sadly, this is the same type of thinking that thought railings and non-compliant sidewalks would somehow increase retail traffic and visitors to our downtown.”
Foster noted in a press release from the City of Bamberg that the plan would be implemented in stages as money and investments become available.
“I am pleased that the city and county have been able to work together on this project to create a much needed plan and vision for this areas. We will continue to work together to secure funding to implement the plan and bring downtown Bamberg back as a vibrant place for our citizens to enjoy,” she said.
Haynes said, “Downtown has been an eyesore for many years. Abandoned buildings, loss of businesses and lack of resources has been a major issue for the City of Bamberg. This has been a discussion among many city leaders for many years and yet the process is slow.”
Haynes said identifying specific development strategies would be her vision to take downtown to “new levels of livelihood.”
“Downtown has the potential to be great. ... I was born and raised in Bamberg. I have seen where downtown was doing amazingly, and I also saw where downtown was struggling. I know the needs of Bamberg, and I understand that this will take some time to complete.
“It took the City of Greenville over 20 years to develop the jewel they enjoy now. So there’s no easy fix here; however, collectively with the help of the city council, county council and citizens, we can improve our downtown area,” she said.
Haynes added, “A vibrant downtown retains and creates jobs, which also means a stronger tax base.”
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