Fort Mill Town Council is continuing a recent trend toward sweetening the deal for incoming business.
Council recently gave initial approval to four new economic incentives. The aim is to make Fort Mill as attractive as possible for companies looking to start up in or relocate to the town.
“Kind of a motivation to continue the momentum,” Mayor Guynn Savage said at a Sept. 12 Council meeting.
One incentive involves a tax exemption for up to five years for manufacturing when a $50,000 or more investment is made. A similar one deals with corporate headquarters or distribution, where 75 or more full-time jobs or part-time equivalents come with the company.
An exemption for research and development facilities of $50,000 or more, including machinery and equipment, mirrors one in place across the river in Rock Hill.
“It’s almost word for word the same,” said town planning director Joe Cronin.
The last incentive is a facade improvement grant program.
“It would be a reimbursement of up to $5,000,” Cronin said. “It would be a matching grant.”
Council is making a concerted effort to remain business friendly. The town is promoting a state and local incentive aimed at renovating historic properties, including several large projects on Main Street. That incentive locks in a tax value for a set time even after renovations are made, allowing new business to come in operate for a decade or more at the pre-improvement rate.
Savage said town actions, or even the perception of them, are key in driving commerce in Fort Mill. Prior to becoming mayor, Savage voted last year against new impact fees on development in town. A major reason was the extra cost for incoming business, an issue brought up again the morning after Council voted on the recent incentives.
The York County Regional Chamber of Commerce — which formally opposed impact fees — held its annual breakfast event Sept. 13 highlighting activity in Fort Mill, Tega Cay and the unincorporated parts York County between them. The impact fee question was one of the first asked of Savage.
“I felt very uncomfortable imposing a fee on the people we were trying to attract,” she said of why she voted against them. “We live on the backs of those folks.”
Still, the fee question is complicated. The idea behind the fees is to help community growth pay for itself. New growth, including businesses, brings traffic, people and increased demands on public services – from police and fire protection to garbage and recycling collection – that someone has to fund.
“Administratively, those (impact fee) funds are able to help us,” Savage said.
A month shy of a year in place, the town collected more than $820,000 for recreation, $280,000 for municipal services and $150,000 for fire protection. The town didn’t collect any fee for road improvements, identified as the top need, yet also the column putting the greatest cost on business development.
Savage said the overall impact those fees had on business, whether they kept new ones away or began any trend for businesses looking at Fort Mill, is hard to identify.
“It’s a little early to tell,” she said.
Along with the new incentives, another town project aims to help existing businesses as renovations are needed. Last fall, the town received a $25,000 matching grant to overhaul its guidelines for historic properties. The town and a consultant worked with more than 40 business and property owners. The result is a 150-page document that will go online to help would-be investors as future business decisions are made.
“It is based on best practices nationally,” said Nore Winter, consultant with Winter & Co. out of Colorado. “We’ve designed it to be user friendly. It’s highly graphic. There are lots of visual aids.”
At a recent town historic review board meeting, an owner came in to explain window replacements that didn’t fit historic district guidelines. He thought he needed approval. A five-figure repair cost loomed, though the historic board decided not to require it.
The new guideline document should put a stop to misunderstandings like that one.
“It’s designed to help property owners in advance, before they come in with a plan and they’ve already spent a lot of time and money,” Winter said.
The document uses prior Fort Mill renovations, in part, to explain what is required.
“We’re not asking people to do something that people have not already been able to do,” Winter said.
Another impact could be to draw attention to historic properties in Fort Mill, many of them centered around Main Street, though not all.
“It’s a great document,” said Councilman James Shirey. “I knew we had a lot of historic buildings. I didn’t realize how diversified they are.”
Even the initial outreach to ask property owners if they wanted to be part of the new guideline project helped for some, Cronin said.
“They didn’t even know that their properties were in the historic district,” he said.
The town sees the guidelines not as additional restrictions, but as a more definitive guide to help as repairs and renovations already are being made. Which, leaders hope, helps property values to boost all businesses in the area.
“It’ll help expedite approvals,” Winter said. “It just enhances predictability. All users know what the rules are.”