By KATHY ROPP
A $6 million to $7 million plan for Downtown Conway housing unveiled at Monday’s Conway City Council meeting couldn’t have been received more warmly by city officials.
“His plan is going to change the face of Conway,” said Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy, adding that the project proposed by Van Watts, president of the Pace Group will put Conway’s growth and development on steroids.
Watts’ plan starts with a four-story housing project including 39, one and two-bedroom units on a 10,000-square-foot building pad on Kingston Lake beside the Ocean Fish Market.
The Myrtle Beach resident said his company has developed many apartment complexes in Myrtle Beach and throughout Horry County. They’ve built subdivisions, four developments in Carolina Forest and offices in Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, so coming to Conway just seems like a natural move to him. The second part of Watts’ plan is to buy the historic Jerry Cox building on Main Street, tear down the deteriorating, non historic portion in the back that was added years after the front and replace it with another four-story apartment building with about 40, one and two-bedroom apartments.
The Jerry Cox building has four retail spaces facing Main Street; two of them are empty now. Watts hopes to recruit businesses into the empty spaces. The plan calls for the new apartments to rent for $900 to $1,000 a month, which Watts believes is pretty typical for Downtown Conway housing.
To get the plan moving, Watts wants the City of Conway to move forward with its development plans already in the works. He wants the parking lot between the two buildings that was recently given to the city by the Burroughs Company to be upgraded, and he hopes Conway will move ahead with its plan to extend the riverwalk past Kingston Presbyterian Church to S.C. 905, which will put it in front of the new housing building.
If Conway moves ahead, Watts estimates that he can have people living in the downtown buildings in 12 to 18 months. Conway has asked Columbia bond attorney Frannie Heizer to come up with some creative ways to finance some of its downtown riverfront plan, but her work is still in its early stages.
Watts believes stepping up the plan will be a good deal financially for the city because the tax revenue brought into the city by the buildings will cover the preparation costs.
Blain-Bellamy is also excited about the benefit Conway will get from “putting heads in beds” downtown, which she thinks will make Conway the place to be, giving downtown stores and restaurants more customers.
“It certainly would be worth our time to try to meet his needs,” she said. Conway city planner Adam Emrick is equally excited about the plan. “It will be a big boon to our downtown,” he said. He said what Watts plans to build is exactly what Conway’s riverfront master plan calls for “so the timing couldn’t be better.”
The city’s part of the project will include fixing the parking lot, and providing water and electricity to the project. “We are looking at a master plan that is underway…As soon as we get it done, we’re ready to start implementing it,” Emrick said. He said every plan the city has looked at so far has theorized that the city needs more vibrancy and that includes getting more people downtown. The plan will still have to go through several approvals, including the Community Appearance Board.
Watts says the parking that residents will use won’t be assigned to the tenants, but will be used on a first-come, first-serve basis. He says the parking lot is underutilized now, and he believes there’s plenty to accommodate the residents especially considering that downtown shoppers and diners will use the lot during the daytime and tenants will likely use it at night.
He thinks the apartments will be at an ideal place for people to come home, park their cars and walk to restaurants and shops.
Emrick agrees that the parking lot is rough and underutilized now, and says the new plan will turn it into something Conwayites can be proud of.
Watts says he became interested in the project when his business partner Brown Bethune, who listed the project for the Burroughs Company, asked if he might be interested in buying and developing it. He has a contract now on the two properties.