Christian Morton has been working on the Clearwater Finishing Plant since January 2011 in hopes of turning it into a mixed-use facility that will bring more than 400 jobs to the small community.
“This will not stop us,” Morton said Wednesday. “We’re going to take this adversity and shine through it.”
The two buildings consumed in the Tuesday night blaze were already abated and 100 percent free of asbestos, so Morton said there should be no environmental impact.
Adam Myrick, a spokesman for South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the agency’s concern was the water runoff from firefighting efforts, but concluded that there was no threat.
Morton said he heard people speculating about the fire being insurance fraud, but the property and building were not insured.
“You can’t insure that,” he said. “I wish we could have, trust me.”
In fact, Morton had stacks of antique heart pine lumber that he had already sold and were waiting to be picked up inside the buildings that were destroyed.
Law enforcement told Morton that when they arrived at the fire, they saw a person running into the woods from the burning building. They chased, he said, but to no avail.
While the fire was contained to two buildings that he wasn’t going to keep standing, the idea that someone would set fire to the project is not an encouraging one for Morton.
“It’s very odd to me, I’ve literally done nothing but good for this community,” he said.
Capt. Troy Elwell, of the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, said the fire is under suspicion of arson. It will take a couple of days for the area to cool down enough for investigators to look more closely.
Once employing more than 2,000 workers, the 800,000-square-foot facility printed, dyed and bleached fabric that was sent to sale as cut goods or to mills to make into clothing. In 1988, however, the plant’s parent company, United Merchants, declared bankruptcy and the mill closed.
Morton teamed with Dockery Group, a development company that specializes in converting old buildings into mixed-use facilities.
The demolition and cleanup is expected to be finished in early March, Morton said. After that process is complete, the facility will undergo a series of inspections before it can recruit tenants.
“Plans remain unchanged,” Morton said. “We’re moving ahead at full force.”