Chester businesses face downtown dilemma

Patrons in downtown Chester chat at the intersection of Main and Gadsden streets on Thursday. A plan to move county offices out of downtown has business owners concerned.
Patrons in downtown Chester chat at the intersection of Main and Gadsden streets on Thursday. A plan to move county offices out of downtown has business owners concerned.

CHESTER -- Some Chester business owners fear that a plan to move most county offices from the county courthouse to the J.A. Cochran Bypass would place a chokehold on the downtown area.

But the leaders who orchestrated the move maintain it will finally give county employees room to exhale.

On June 18, the County Council took its first vote on borrowing up to $3 million, with $1.4 million going toward the purchase of a building where they hope to house numerous departments, the council chambers and the county supervisor's office.

The county plans to pay for the building through general obligation bonds. A final vote and public hearing are scheduled for Monday.

The move would shift nearly all the county's offices out of downtown Chester to a 29,580-square-foot-facility owned by Omnova Solutions.

Citing concerns about limited office space, county leaders said the Omnova facility will ease their growing pains and allow residents to handle lots of business in one place.

But in the weeks after the announcement, some downtown business owners and one former City Council member have expressed concerns about the project.

"I think it'll be detrimental to the businesses downtown," said Pat Dennis, owner of Upcountry II Antiques & Gifts on Main Street and chairwoman of the Chester Downtown Development Association.

People who do business at the courthouse and county employees on their lunch breaks won't be eating in downtown restaurants or shopping in nearby stores after the move, she said.

"I've talked to a few of the merchants ... and we're all concerned because we all depend upon foot traffic," she said. "And if you move that much activity away from downtown, it is going to hurt it."

Former City Councilwoman Nancy Anderson, who has been leading the charge against the move, echoed those thoughts.

"We don't have enough positive things going in Chester County to fracture what we have," she said.

While researching the impact of the shift, Anderson asked Greenville-based urban planner Tripp Muldrow how the change would affect downtown.

"The impact seems to be pretty strong when you factor in that nearly one in 10 of the professionals downtown will be leaving downtown," he wrote in an e-mail response. "I'm estimating a loss of sales to the tune of between $100,000 and $150,000 per year using a very conservative estimation."

County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey disagreed with that theory.

"There ain't that kind of foot traffic going downtown," he said. "You can go down to Gene's Restaurant every day of the week, and there's nobody down there from the courthouse."

Roddey insisted that the move would not hurt downtown and that only a handful of people oppose the transition.

"Everybody else I talk to is happy as a lark about the thing," he said. "What I'm doing is for the many, not for the few."

Local attorney Bill Marion said the move could be a frustration to people who need to search for land titles.

Three offices that he said are used together are the clerk of court's records room, probate court and the tax assessor's office. The County Council hopes to move the latter two offices into the bypass building while leaving the clerk of court in the courthouse.

If that happens, Marion said, "We'll be making multiple trips up and down the bypass. ... So, that's what I see as the downside."

Although he applauds the county for trying to obtain more space at a minimal cost, Marion said the three offices should remain close to each other.

Roddey said because of those worries, he offered the clerk of court the option of moving the records room to the bypass building.

Gene's Restaurant owner Bill Robertson said his biggest concern is not the impact on his restaurant, but the county losing the tax money from the Omnova building.

As for that fear, Roddey said only the county and the school district have a use for the site.

"Are you going to let that building sit there forever?" he asked.

Like the worried downtown merchants, County Councilman Alex Oliphant also has concerns about the aftermath of the move, but thinks it's economically the right thing to do.

"It's not going to be good for downtown," he said. "I don't know if it's going to devastate downtown, but it's not going to be good."