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Sales tax funds should be used to preserve McLeod Plantation

Does the College of Building Arts really need the site?
Patricia Jones

Remember McLeod Plantation? Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) sold it to the then School of Building Arts (SOBA) to be developed into its new school campus. There was a public outcry from folk who wanted the plantation, at least what is left of it, preserved and restored. No, said the HCF. The plantation is a financial drag. We have tried to sell it to legitimate preservation groups but unsuccessfully. We will sell it to SOBA.

Both City and PRC originally hoped to buy the property
Both the City of Charleston and the County had the plantation of the top of their lists as a property to buy, for greenspace and preservation. And why didn’t they buy it? A then lack of funds!

But some things have changed. There is now money to fund the preservation of McLeod and anecdotal evidence that the school's ambitious plans, that were used to justify the sale, are not being realized. There also are other reasons why the school, now called the American College of Building Arts (ACBA) should give up McLeod. But whatever the combined strength of these reasons, the stumbling block is probably Mayor Riley. He spent a lot of political capital in supporting the school and the acquisition. For ACBA to sell out could be a loss of face.

Greenbelt grant process brings McLeod to mind
McLeod came into mind over the last month as the grant process got underway relating to the acquisition of greenbelts, both urban and rural. The grants are financed by the half-cent sales tax. A number of projects have received grants but substantial amounts remain for funding other greenbelt acquisitions and creation. Under the scoring system devised by the Greenbelt Advisory Board, McLeod Plantation should score very high as a desirable greenbelt project. Not only would it qualify as greenspace, but also as an heritage project.

Plenty of money available to fund acquisition
The half-cent sales tax is projected to raise about $221 million over its 25 year life for greenbelt acquisition. Rather than wait for funds to accumulate, the County has and will make bond issues to raise funds immediately. The interest and amortization of the bonds will be met from sales tax funds. At the beginning of May, about $95 million of bond money was available for greenbelts. Of this total, 70% was available for rural and 30% for urban grants. The City of Charleston’s share of urban funds was $9.8 million. Taking into account grants already made, the cash available to the City for urban greenbelts is $9.4 million. Only a portion of these funds would be needed to buy McLeod if it were to acquire the property at the same price as ACBA.

But the PRC could be interested as well
But funding is not confined to the grants. The Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) was also entitled to $36 million funding and to which it now has access. To our knowledge, none of the funds has yet been spent though we are sure the PRC has been negotiating with parties. As McLeod was on the top of the PRC’s list of desirable properties some years ago, we suspect it would move promptly to acquire the plantation if it were available. And indeed, the PRC would probably be the most suitable entity to acquire the site. It administers other parks in the County and would have the funding to not only buy the plantation but make necessary renovations and repairs. Maybe it would go further than most preservationists would like in making the site a park, but we suspect the distance it travels will be much less than that planned by ACBA with it extra classrooms and sheds.

The cost should not be high
ACBA bought McLeod from HCF for $850.000 3 years ago. By today’s standards, this is not a grand price. HCF has retained a covenant to take back the property should ACBA cease to use it for the purpose it planned. As far as we can tell, any decision for ACBA to sell to say the PRC would require approval from HCF which presumably would impose conditions on development and use. Realistically, the strings and dotted lines may begin with ACBA and travel through HCF. But inevitably they lead to and end with Mayor Riley. We won’t say he controls the HCF but the board is heavily laced with conspicuous supporters. It is possible that the majority of the board would support a sale, but it seems likely there will be a fight if Mayor Riley is opposed to it.

ACBA is failing to achieve its objectives
And why should ACBA sell out? The main reason is that it is failing to achieve the grand objectives that were used to justify the acquisition of McLeod. The purchase was to allow consolidation of the school and a large increase in enrolment. The increase in enrolment never materialized and according to the Post and Courier article earlier this year, only 19 students were enrolled. This compares with 160 or more students projected back in 2004.

McLeod Plantation, the old City Jail and a campus at North Charleston, all for 19 students? We can’t argue about the merit of the school’s program. But in terms of real estate needs, this seems unjustifiable over-abundance. See www.buildingartscollege.us for the College’s web site.

Litigation is costly and the Friends of McLeod are resolute
There is also another reason for ACBA to sell. Friends of McLeod is a non profit group that came together to help preserve McLeod at the time of the sale to ACBA. It has initiated legal action to stop the sale. It has lost on some issues and has appealed. Given the seriousness of the members of the body, and their resources, the process may well go ultimately to the Supreme Court. The process is costly for both parties. But ACBA should be asking whether with it failed objectives, such spending is justified? May be it would be better for the whole Charleston community to enjoy McLeod rather than just a handful of students each year.