Future remains uncertain for long-abandoned Grace Street plant

When David Tuck walked from the small laboratory he worked in to the water treatment plant’s main facility a few yards over, he was always struck by its imposing ceiling and large windows.

The second floor of the plant evoked a sense of wonder in him, akin to looking up at Grand Central Station’s arched ceilings, but in a structure that more closely resembled a small mill. Built in 1934, the plant is a slab of concrete and brick held up by reinforced beams.

Tuck primarily worked in the lab in a side building by CPW’s Grace Street treatment facility. As a chemist, he tested the pH and bacteria levels of Greenwood’s water supply and determined appropriate treatments.

The operation worked like a well-oiled machine — he’d cross its red-tiled floor to test the water before they filtered it, adding chemicals to kill any bacteria and purify it. About 1-3 million gallons of water went through the plant each day before making its way to Greenwood County homes and businesses.

Now, thick foliage curls around some of the defunct equipment, winding through windows broken by vandals and urban spelunkers.

The facility stopped most of its operations 30 years ago when CPW’s plant on Lake Greenwood — the W.R. Wise Treatment Plant — became its central location, but it was still used as a peaking center until it was officially decommissioned in 1994.

Tuck, who is now superintendent of the Wise plant, said once the new facility opened up, it was renovated several times to increase water capacity. Now, it can hold up to 33 million gallons of water per day. The intent was to prepare for a projected surge of growth in the area, although the plant only averages between nine and 10 million gallons per day.

“It never did pan out, because the textile industry pretty much went away, and they were large water users,” Tuck said. “So instead of growing in producing water, we went the other way because industries were leaving.”

But Tuck said the future looks much brighter as population has started to pick up in Greenwood, and industries such as Teijin and Ascend have moved to the area or expanded their operations.

The old plant’s future is still uncertain. For 24 years, it’s been a vacant eyesore riddled with graffiti.

In 2011, CPW deeded the property to the city of Greenwood, and shortly after, the city leased it to the Greenwood Parks and Trails Foundation, along with the rest of the land used to build the Grace Street Park.

Greenwood City Manager Charlie Barrineau said his staff often finds new entry points where someone has broken in. Because it’s a liability, the city’s insurance requires the building to be inspected twice a year, but lately, they’ve been checking it weekly because of vandals and drug users who’ve found privacy in its walls.

The bottom floor’s windows are boarded up to prevent access inside, but because it has multi-level sections and dozens of windows beside a natural hill, intruders often enter under the cover of trees on the second floor.

On the first floor are 18-inch thick pipes connected to valves that used to control water flow. A caged elevator is shuttered to the side of one room. An electrical system sits stripped of copper wire — the building’s been picked clean of anything valuable.

A few empty syringes litter the second floor and graffiti mars its concrete walls.

Scattered around are old documents containing water pH levels and records left behind from the plant’s useful days.

Empty water filter tanks padded with moss sit in the plant’s largest room, sunlight streaming in its dusty, sizable windows.

It’s third floor is much smaller, taking up only one section of the building — a window with a person-sized hole has been cut out for roof access.

Barrineau told city council members he’d like to see the building razed — the cost of renovating it and keeping it up is more than the city can afford without assistance.

Billy Nicholson, chairman of the Parks and Trails Foundation, also thinks it should be demolished — but the topic isn’t on anyone’s radar at the moment. More pressing is the need to secure its access points from intruders.

The Parks foundation board voted last week to reimburse the city for about $3,000 to cover primary access windows with steel sheets — the end goal is to curb break-ins.

Built to last, the cost of demolishing the reinforced building is also more than the city and Parks foundation have on hand for such a project.

The foundation is set to get more than $2 million from the county’s penny sales tax earmarked for Grace Street Park — if it were to focus those funds on demolishing or renovating the old water treatment plant, it would eat up much of the park’s budget.

“We’ve talked about it on a number of occasions, and knowing that we do not have the money to do it, there’s not really a way to proceed with that,” Nicholson said.

But not everyone on the Parks foundation and city council agree on demolishing the building.

City Councilman Kenn Wiltshire has built a reputation on opposing the demolition of old buildings. When council members discussed tearing down the Kitson Mill site, Wiltshire objected, although only a small office building on the site still remains.

The city demolished the mill’s smokestack after an engineer said it was unstable and could potentially strike a house if it were to fall. The brick and soil in the area was also contaminated with cancer-causing materials after years of burning coal.

But Wiltshire said the old plants are part of Greenwood’s history.

“Part of the reason Greenwood exists is because of all the mills,” Wiltshire said. “Just the fact that it’s there is a historic fact, and I wish we had a textile museum.”

Cities across South Carolina have been able to convert old mill plants into modern buildings — an old mill in downtown Lexington now contains offices and restaurants, and several old mill buildings in Greenville and Columbia now serve as pricey loft apartments.

Wiltshire would like to see the old water treatment plant turned into a museum and visitors center.

“It’s got some beautiful mosaic tiles on the floor and some beautiful industrial work, red tiles on (sections of) the floor, beautiful ironwork,” Wiltshire said. “It was just a beautiful place, but then you look at it from today’s point of view, educationally, it’s got the most amazing machinery.”

Jack Able worked in it for six years making sure it was in compliance with regulations before he was transferred to the new plant in 1984.

He knew it was on it’s last leg when he was moved to the new facility, even though it was still used as a peaking plant.

“It was kept just like you keep something in a closet and bring it out when you need it,” Able said.

When he drives by the decrepit building now, he still thinks about its red-tiled floors and how immaculate it was in its prime.

“I just hate to see it like that,” Able said. “You work there a good while and it becomes a part of you.”

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