RE: Downtown Beaufort investments and an invitation to participate in historic preservation
Dear John, Board Chair, HISTORIC BEAUFORT FOUNDATION:
Please share this letter with your fellow Board Members. I am writing to correct some misleading statements about our downtown plans and to restate an invitation to join with us and others in preserving important buildings and property rights.
The Invitation: Project Shelter or The Arts District. Several years ago, Sharon and I, acting through 303 Associates, joined with United Way and HBF to form Project Shelter. The objective was to assist in restoring Freedman’s Cottages, to help heirs retain their property, and to provide intown housing. HBF’s role was to assist in the design phase for renovation and construction. The United Way hired a staff person, and the City waived some fees. We purchased a house on Wilmington Street, a Freedman’s Cottage on Washington Street and two vacant lots in the Northwest Quadrant as a place to start. At that time Libby Anderson City Planning Director estimated that between 50% and 70% of houses and lots in the NW quadrant were vacant. We donated the house on Wilmington Street to Project Shelter. It was renovated, leased, and ultimately sold. We agreed to donate the Washington Street Cottage subject to its renovation. This Freedman’s Cottage went through the standard Historic Review Board (HRB) process with no assistance from HBF. Allison Ramsey donated architectural service. Grayco generously agreed to donate building materials at cost, and Russ Diller agreed to do the work at his cost. Due to the design requirements placed on the house, the cost to renovate the house exceeded its market value. HBF did nothing to assist. The project was abandoned, and we sold the house to a couple who pursued renovation. After some time and with new owners, the house began to disappear board by board. It was believed the neighbors were using the boards for firewood. The building disappeared. Not the finest example of preservation work. We sold the other two lots to Habitat. I mention this now because I invited HBF to join with us and restart Project Shelter at a meeting with your staff on February 18. I expected a response to be, “That’s a great idea, let us discuss this with our Board” or “We have limited resources so we will need resources to participate.” The quick response was “We’re too busy.” Is it the Board position at HBF that you are “too busy” to participate in preserving houses and property rights in the Historic District?
Arts District: For years we have been concerned about the loss of historic family ownership in the Northwest Quadrant and the difficulty property owners have in renovating their houses. A few years ago, in cooperation with the Beaufort Arts Council, we helped fund and supported the identification of the Northwest Quadrant as an Arts District. The action was endorsed by the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce, the Technical College of the Lowcountry, Main Street Beaufort, and the Beaufort Arts Council. A copy of the City’s unanimous resolution in support of this measure is available. On February 18, I invited HBF to join with us to move this initiative forward to restore historic cottages. I expected a willingness to think about it or discuss the opportunity with the Board. What I got was “We’re too busy.” Is this the HBF Board position? Do you know of a better plan to help save those cottages and ensure heirs are not forced to sell their houses? May we know about such plans? Does HBF even care or maybe you are “too busy”?
Downtown Beaufort Investments: Unfortunately, we live in a time when inflammatory and misleading statements are presented as fact. HBF has fallen into this pattern and is being careless with the truth and reckless with assertions. Before specifics, let’s consider some history.
The Saltus Building (circa 1797) on Bay Street across the street from HBF’s Verdier House sat vacant, boarded, and with weeds and litter in front of the building for 25 years. Saltus is believed to be the tallest surviving commercial tabby building in South Carolina. The Saltus House is a treasure. We restored the Saltus House in 2001. This improved the appearance of Bay Street. We also replaced a fenced equipment yard on Waterfront Park with a garden and dining area. The increase in employment, property taxes, business license fees, and hospitality taxes have benefitted all residents and taxpayers. HBF looked at this eyesore for 25 years and did nothing. Was it because HBF was “too busy”?
We created Tabby Place event center inside a building that had been closed for 20 years. As part of the renovation, we spent $100,000 to raise the floor by 19 inches to be above FEMA flood levels. The space has been successful and has benefitted residents, merchants, hoteliers, property owners, and city taxpayers. HBF did nothing about this vacant downtown building. Does the HBF Board just not care or were you simply “too busy”?
In recent years, four banks have closed in downtown. The ground floor of each one of those buildings remains vacant. We looked at alternatives for the Port Republic Street bank building that we own. Converting into a restaurant requires paying $40,000+ in impact fees, plus the cost for ADA Accessible restrooms and other improvements. Raising the floor above flood level is not feasible. We donated use of the building to the Pat Conroy Literary Center for two years while we prepared plans for reuse. HBF has done nothing about any of these vacant buildings other than make exaggerated false claims about our plans. We are putting an annex to Tabby place at this site so that organizations can have break out rooms for meetings being held in Tabby Place. Maxine Lutz asserts that this annex will attract “hundreds” of people. She does not know what she’s talking about, and she doesn’t seem to care. Is the HBF Board willing to be associated with such irresponsible behavior? Is the HBF Board “too busy”?
Your firm Merrill Lynch moved from a building on Port Republic Street that we plan to replace with apartments and retail. One of the stated reasons Merrill moved was the condition of the building. The building is in bad shape, poorly constructed, below flood level, and is not listed as deserving protection. The Building has been mostly vacant for three years. Unlike the current building, the proposed new building will have landscaping on two sides and will be above the flood level. Has the HBF Board taken a position on the demolition? On the building? We have met with neighbors and are addressing their concerns. We are happy to meet with you and the HBF Board to discuss your concerns if you aren’t “too busy?” Tom’s Shoe Shop, formerly located on the NW corner of Port Republic and West Street, is referred to in an HBF social media post as a being removed. You personally shared that post. You failed to mention that HBF requested the removal. There is a written agreement between HBF and the Beaufort Inn regarding the removal. Did you intend to mislead the readers, or did you fail to check the facts? You could have easily called us for a copy. Perhaps you simply relied on bad information from others, and you did not check for yourself because you are “too busy.”
Reputation and Credibility: Recently HBF, under your leadership, has embarked on a campaign of misinformation and deceit. This campaign is designed to cast doubt on the propriety of our investments in the core commercial area of Downtown Beaufort. This is shameful, immoral and demeans HBF. Simply because a few elitists imply that we should have been more forthcoming does not make it true. HBF implies that we have been less than open about our plans. That’s hogwash, and you, as a Chairman and Board Member, should know it. We have been completely open and transparent. There have been at least 28 articles published in the Gazette since 2013 describing our plans. We have discussed our plans in public forums and in presentations. There have been numerous meetings with the Historic Review Board (HRB). Not only has HBF staff had the opportunity to speak at each of these reviews, HBF has a designated appointee on the HRB. What is true is that HBF has had, literally, a seat at the table and was represented during every step of the review process. The simple truth is that HBF is being used by a few people with a personal agenda. Is the HBF Board really TOO BUSY to check the facts? Is HBF’s Board seeking to cast doubts on the process they helped establish? Is the HBF Board ‘TOO BUSY” to care about the vacant buildings in Beaufort’s Core Commercial district? Is the HBF Board TOO BUSY to monitor HBF actions at the HRB? Is the HBF Board TOO BUSY to do anything to help the people who want to be able to use their property including vacant Freedman’s Cottages in the Northwest Quadrant.
Mr. Troutman, as a Board Member and officer, you owe a Fiduciary Duty to HBF that requires the “highest standard of care”. You and your fellow board members have “unique responsibilities related to monitoring, distribution, administration, and/or investment of property, such as public or charitable assets of the business, in addition to intangible assets, like the company’s reputation and its role in the community. It is obvious that the HBF Board has relied too much on staff and failed to do sufficient fact checking. These reckless actions must end promptly if you and your Board Members fulfill your Fiduciary Duty.
We have invested substantial amounts in improving Beaufort’s Core Commercial District. We have complied with all regulations despite claims by HBF to the contrary. We will not sit by while misleading statements and falsehoods damage our reputation, our business and property rights. We will not be concerned with claims that you are “too busy.”
I extend to you and your Board an invitation to help with Project Shelter or the Arts District or other creative ways to help benefit Beaufort and the vacant Freedman’s Cottages in the Historic District. As small, locally owned companies, 303 Associates and The Beaufort Inn have been busy trying to do just that for decades. You work for Merrill Lynch, one of the largest investment management firms in the world. Merrill is owned by Bank of America, one of the largest banks in the world. If you truly care about historic preservation in Beaufort, then stop the smear tactics and deceit. Stop trying to subvert a long-standing legal process and work with others to bring some of the vast resources controlled by Merrill and BOA to help fill these empty buildings and to save heirs properties and homes. If you will do this now, it can be a legacy that will give satisfaction and instill pride in you, in your family and in your company.
Richard H. Stewart