Contributing author: Rory Dowling – 1st & Main Development Company
Can the preservation of an iconic building in the heart of a small, struggling town become a catalyst for future community and economic development? We’re about to find out… Fairfield County, and more specifically the Town of Winnsboro, SC has suffered from unfortunate economic news over the last two years. First, Walmart left town. Then, a $14B nuclear power plant project (promising millions in annual tax revenue to the County) stalled in year 4 of development. Shortly after, one of the Town’s largest employers (employing 200+ of the Town’s 3,500 residents), shutdown. On top of all that, one of the Town’s most significant building assets was in danger of being demolished due to many years of deterioration and neglect.
The Mt. Zion Institute (MZI) is an historic high school complex in downtown Winnsboro, SC (County Seat for Fairfield County) comprised of five unique structures totaling roughly 45,000 SF – the main classroom building (c. 1936), theatre (c. 1936), gymnasium (c. 1936), cafeteria (c. 1943) and teacherage (c. 1880). The main structures (classroom, theatre and gymnasium buildings) feature a beautiful masonry display of both Gothic Revival and Streamline Modern architectural elements. The oldest structure (the two-story teacherage) represents a gem of Folk Victorian history. The site itself dates back to the Revolutionary War, when it was used as an encampment for British troops. Less than 85 years later, the campus and school would serve as a hospital for the sick and wounded of the Confederate soldiers in the War Between the States.
The site ceased operating as a school in the 1970s and was used for various purposes for the next 20 years. In 2008, after remaining vacant for a period of 15 years, the Town of Winnsboro began taking steps to demolish the structures. Thankfully, a group of concerned citizens organized a non-profit dubbed Friends of Mt. Zion Institute (FOMZI), with a mission of saving historic buildings significant to the Town’s history. From 2008 – 2016, FOMZI worked with the Town and potential developers to devise a plan for redevelopment including successfully raising funds to help stabilize certain areas of the site and address its deteriorating outward appearance. Unfortunately, FOMZI was unable to find a partner that could execute a feasible redevelopment plan, and in 2016, the Town once again made plans for the site’s demolition.
Rory Dowling, the author, of 1st & Main Development (www.1standmaindevelopment.com), had followed the fate of MZI closely. He has many ties to the area – his grandmother and several cousins actually attended MZI and still call the small Town home. In addition, his grandmother’s late brother, Brother Lyles, was a founding member of FOMZI. Upon learning of the imminent demolition plans, he began speaking to Fairfield County and working on a potential plan for
redevelopment. The Town temporarily suspended demolition plans, granting a certain amount of time for an agreement to be reached between 1st & Main and the County.
Fairfield County’s Government facilities are currently inadequate in terms of building condition, configuration, safety and size. The cost to rehab the existing structure, update mechanical systems, and add the additional space needed far exceeded the County’s financial borrowing capacity. 1st & Main Development, in partnership with JA Jones Ventures, proposed a plan to the County to redevelop the MZI properties into a new Fairfield County Government Complex – a public private partnership by which the County would master lease 100% of the complex and the development team would privately finance the redevelopment. This redevelopment plan allows the development team to access certain tax credits not available to the County if they were to redevelop the structure themselves – Historic Tax Credits, Abandoned Building Tax Credits, and New Market Tax Credits. These tax credits are sold to 3rd party investors and generate a significant portion (close to 50%) of the project’s needed financing. As a result, the annual lease payments for the County are significantly less compared to projected debt service the County would need to support if they built a similar-sized facility themselves.
1st & Main and Fairfield County entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the County in 2017 and eventually executed a Redevelopment and Lease Agreement in 2018. The successful redevelopment will provide much needed upgrades to current County facilities, allow services to be consolidated in a central location, bring an additional 100+ employees to downtown Winnsboro on a daily basis, and preserve the most iconic buildings in the community. Once
completed, the complex will house the following uses: County administrative services, Council chambers and event space, County-sponsored childhood development center and senior citizens center, Sheriff’s department, 911 call center, Parks and recreation center, and the Fairfield County Visitor Center.
The successful redevelopment of MZI will have intangible impacts as well. FOMZI members and supporters have spent a significant amount of time and money shielding this site from the wrecking ball. Bringing the buildings back to life for community use will demonstrate the importance of local support and its impact on historic preservation. In addition, this project should set the stage for future redevelopment efforts throughout Fairfield County, giving private property owners the confidence to invest in their community’s historic assets.
The Development Team recently submitted finalized building plans to Fairfield County for permitting and hope to begin the renovation this fall. If all goes as planned, the historic Mount Zion Institute will be buzzing with activity and operating as the new Fairfield County Government Complex by the end of 2020.
R&R Contributing Author and photographer: Mr. Rory Dowling, the author and principal of 1st & Main Development has deep roots in Fairfield County. His personal attention to the details of this plan has made an enormous contribution to local preservation. His continued interest in seeing this project to fruition is a major link to its success and R&R.com sincerely
appreciates his many insights. Rory’s real estate experience has focused primarily on urban, mixed-use projects involving public – private partnerships and unique financing techniques. His company, 1st & Main Development, focuses on iconic properties or sites with deep historical context and connection to the surrounding community. These properties often have a storied past and require special consideration when thinking about the end product. Rory has close ties to Winnsboro, SC – his grandmother and many cousins actually attended Mt. Zion Institute and still call the small town home. Rory received a dual master’s degree from UNC Chapel HIll in Business and City & Regional Planning and holds a Bachelor’s degree from Washington & Lee University.
We would also like to acknowledge the excellent images contributed to Roots and Recall by photographer Peter Krenn. His work graces the pages of the website’s pages and we are always pleased to receive copies of his work.
Interested in becoming a contributing author, contact R&R at email@example.com