Amid a swirl of rumors and public prodding questions, some Aiken officials are making one thing clear: The city has not locked in a deal or partnership or agreement of any sort with the potential developers of the old Aiken County hospital property.
Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh on Tuesday morning said "there absolutely has not" been a deal struck between the city and WTC Investments LLC – the private firm angling to buy the old hospital property at 828 Richland Ave. W., demolish the buildings there and build a hotel, conference center, parking garage, residential housing and walking trails, among other things.
The city manager, though, said there have been some "very preliminary discussions" about such a thing, tempering the statement with the phrase "nothing concrete."
Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon said a deal – or something like that – between the two entities has not been offered "at this time." That said, the mayor does anticipate a request for partnership or cooperation in the future.
"This is not before council this evening, but at a later date, council will consider any development agreement with the potential buyer," Osbon said during Monday night's City Council meeting. City Council later gave initial approval to WTC Investments' concept plan and requested rezoning.
City Council member Dick Dewar expects the prospective developer to "ask for something."
"But I don't know what it is," Dewar said Tuesday morning.
The council member, who is not seeking reelection, said the size and scope of the project – on the largest single chunk of land in the downtown area – makes it "highly unlikely" outside help won't be sought.
Dewar on Monday night said he had been emailed several times about the hospital property, tying concerns back to the city's so-called Renaissance, a turbulent plan to revitalize downtown and rework the city's footprint therein.
Both the old Renaissance pitch and WTC Investments' proposed recapitalization of the hospital property involve erecting a parking garage. That has piqued interest in the community, and concerns – as well as calls to action – have spread across social media.
The city has money, via the hospitality tax, earmarked for a garage. Bedenbaugh said there are no plans to use that money any time soon.
If the city was to enter into an agreement with WTC Investments, it would be a public matter.
"Any public-private partnership would require public hearings and a two-reading ordinance at City Council," Bedenbaugh said, continuing, "These things, if the City of Aiken was to participate in something like that, it would be of a contractual nature."
Osbon promised the process – if it's ever reached – would be "open." There is no "veil of secrecy," he said.
WTC Investments' concept plan and rezoning request will go before City Council at least one more time. Ordinances need two approvals to go into effect.
The Planning Commission in mid-May recommended for approval WTC Investments' plan for the old hospital property, some of which dates back to the 1930s.