In a city wracked by textile layoffs and double-digit unemployment, Monday's devastating courthouse fire was almost too much to bear.
Martha Swain, who works in a gift store about three blocks from the Lancaster County Courthouse, said times were already tough before the slowdown in the economy. The fire, she said, was another blow to her hometown.
“You begin to wonder just how much we can take,” she said.
But less than 24 hours after fire destroyed the roof of the 180-year-old courthouse and heavily damaged the second floor courtroom, something began to emerge from the smoky ruins – hope.
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County officials said Tuesday it appears the courthouse can be rebuilt, though they are still awaiting final word from a structural engineer. The three-story brick walls are almost entirely intact and the first floor offices had only minor water damage. Pencil drawings on the wall by Civil War soldiers in the spring of 1865 were not damaged.
The courthouse, designed by the same architect as the Washington Monument, is literally at the county's crossroads of Main and Dunlap streets – and one of two National Historic Landmarks in this former mill town. The other is the old city jail built in 1824.
“That courthouse is the jewel of Lancaster and… . It was like someone died in our family,” said Rudy Carter, chair of the Lancaster County Council. “It was a horrible act that was committed against our community but we're not going to let it stop us.”
Carter said the courthouse will likely be rebuilt as a historic building or museum and the county would build a new courthouse. A $33 million referendum was already on the November ballot.
Circuit court was held Tuesday in a city municipal courtroom and plans are being made to find more permanent housing.
Authorities said the intentionally set fire was reported at 5:25 a.m. Monday and brought under control in about three hours. Agents from the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working with the Lancaster police in the investigation. No arrests have been made.
George Dobson, a retired textile worker with Springs for 42 years, said that whoever burned the courthouse “tried and failed to cut out the heart of our community.”
Tough economic times have reigned in Lancaster County for more than 20 years – with the loss of more than 7,000 textile jobs. Changes in import laws essentially killed the mills that had once employed tens of thousands of mostly rural workers across the Carolinas.
In 2007, Springs Industries – by then Springs Global – gave up its losing fight with lower-cost imports and closed plants in Lancaster and Chester counties.
Paulo Guimaraes, a University of South Carolina economist, said that in 2001 about a third of Lancaster County's work force was employed by manufacturing. By 2007, the number of people working in that industry was down almost 50 percent.
“These are huge numbers,” he said.
Lancaster County's unemployment rate recently hit 10.3 percent, compared with the S.C. average of 6.5 percent and is one of the highest rates in the Charlotte region. Out of the 33,000 county residents in the work force, more than 9,000 drive out of county for work.
Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corporation, said employment patterns vary across the county.
North of Waxhaw Road, in the panhandle, Tunnell estimates the unemployment rate is between 4 and 5 percent, slightly below Mecklenburg's. That area, which starts in the shadow of the outerbelt, has evolved into a southern suburb of Charlotte and has experienced impressive growth recently.
There are more than 15,000 new homes and $200 million in new retail pouring into that area and several companies have based headquarters there.
But in the cental and southern parts of the county, the loss of textiles still hurts. Residents there still work at the Duracell plant and some newer operations, but unemployment remains high. Tunnell estimates the rate is about 10 percent in the central part of the county and as high as 15 percent to the south.
“We've been working ever since to diversify our economy,” Tunnell said. “We can't let the loss of one industry hurt us like that again.”
Former Lancaster County Council member Lindsay Pettus often gives historic tours of the courthouse, designed by architect Robert Mills. Pettus walked into the blackened courtroom for the first time Tuesday afternoon and cried.
“It's a horrible mess and there are parts of the building – like the judge's bench that will never be able to be replaced, but it can be rebuilt,” said Pettus.
Pettus said the building has withstood much since 1828 – a Civil War, the earthquake of 1886 and now two fires.
“That it survived is a reminder to us all, that we too can get through tough times,” he said.