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Despite a demolition expert’s vow that he has a contract to tear down the vacant Town Center mall Sears building, no permit is on file with the city Building Commission — and the Charleston Fire Department has responded to reports of homeless people living there.

Rodney Loftis spoke to the Gazette-Mail in July, saying he had already been issued an advance payment by Mayur Patel of KM Hotels. Patel, based in Richmond, Virginia, owns the building. On Thursday, a check with the City Building Commission showed no demolition permit filed. Loftis later hung up on a Gazette-Mail reporter and did not pick up two subsequent calls. KM Hotels representative Tamer Elattar said he would ask Patel to contact the newspaper, but Patel did not.

Nothing has occurred at the property, other than a group of people squatting in the massive store. The Charleston Fire Department responded Aug. 21 to reports of smoke wafting from the building. Fire Marshal Richard Symns said two fires were going, one for cooking and one for staying warm.

“It wasn’t a whole big deal, but it looked like a lot of people were staying there,” Symns said. “Only two people were there at the time, but there were a lot of clothes in there.”

Symns said he called Loftis, who boarded up the building entrance. “The latch on the door was broke,” Symns said. The fire marshal said people had run a line off the building’s sprinkler system and converted it into a makeshift shower.

Earlier this summer, Loftis forecasted September as the demolition target for what he said would be “a pretty big job, the kind that doesn’t come around in Charleston all that often.”

Loftis said separating the building from the rest of the mall, then sealing it off so a free-standing hotel can take its place, would be an intricate undertaking. He said demolition alone would cost about $1 million. Asked if the project developer was still Patel, Loftis said “Yes, that’s the man I’m working for.”

In May 2018, the Gazette-Mail reported on the upcoming project. At the time, Patel told the newspaper the hotel’s opening is still “far out,” but the deal had been in the works for some time. He said then that the hotel was about two years from opening.

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The mall, but not the Sears building, is owned by The Hull Group, of Augusta, Georgia. That organization purchased the structure in May for $7.5 million, after its former owners defaulted on a $100 million loan and the facility slid into receivership.

Years ago, Patel engaged in discussions with the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority about purchasing the vacant Holley Hotel site on Quarrier Street. Former mayor Danny Jones said the city put off another suitor as it waited on Patel.

“The issue over there was the site and cost,” Patel said in 2018. “This one, we have more branding for options and things, because the Holley site wasn’t the best site. This site ... I think it’s probably the best site in town, truthfully, from what we know about Charleston.”

Jones said he is skeptical that any hotel will be built on the site.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

Asked about the project, Mackenzie Spencer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Amy Goodwin, said, “You need to talk to the property owner.”

Walled off to a large degree from the outside, the former store’s loading area is littered with debris, including a container of rotten chicken.

“I believe the issues that exist with the building are more of a police department issue than a fire issue,” Symns said. “When it comes to fire, the building is not meant to burn and has the right equipment in it to put out a fire if one was started.”

Greg Stone covers business. He can be reached at 304-348-5124 or gstone

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