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The College of Charleston at McLeod Plantation –Harmony or hustle?
Lee Walton

This past Saturday’s Palter and Chatter headliner story, “College seeks piece of history”, caught most folks on Jim Island as a typical late summer Charleston political maneuver. The dust had just started to settle following the aftermath of Historic Charleston Foundation’s (HCF) recent buy-back of the Plantation from the rapidly foundering College of the Building Arts and the settlement of ongoing litigation by the Friends of McLeod against the City of Charleston. Over the past months, a few notable suitors began lining up to sign the McLeod dance card and have a go at buying the aging, down-on-her-luck Southern Lady from the HCF.

Recent rumors about other possible suitors for the hand of McLeod Plantation have ran the gauntlet from a rich Yankee millionaire with more money than brains to the resurgence of a previous gaggle of “good old Island boys” who had tried to purchase McLeod from the HCF over six years ago before it was sold to the College of the Building Arts. Two notable public sector suitors included Charleston County PRC and, surprisingly, the Town of James Island. The former had been making timid, behind-the-scenes overtures to HCF for over two years to purchase McLeod for preservation as a passive cultural and historic venue, while the latter very recently made a bold, formal offer to HCF to purchase the Plantation for $1 million. Not surprisingly, it was probably the Town’s September 17th formal offer that precipitated a flurry of secret negotiations from Randolph Hall to City Hall that culminated in the College Foundation’s offer to purchase McLeod for $4 million.

For those new to the political nuances and covert intrigue typifying the Banana Republic of Charleston, the College of Charleston Foundation’s offer to purchase McLeod, as detailed in their press release and web site “Plan for Purchase and Use of McLeod Plantation”, might be accepted at face value as a good faith offer to maintain and preserve the remaining grounds and historic structures defining McLeod Plantation. Notwithstanding the fact that several of the C of C Foundation’s board members include a “Who’s Who” of Mayor J. Pericles Riley prized sycophants and lackeys, the College has been a notable, consistent, and trustworthy steward of dozens of historic properties on George, Glebe, College, Coming, and Bull Streets that have been integrated through adaptive reuse into its nearly built-out peninsula campus.

Given the sizable net worth of the College’s Foundation and the consistent, high level public funding sources available to the College, McLeod would seem to be in relatively safe hands with the promise of long denied preservation action and appreciation of its history as a cultural icon of former Sea Island plantation life. In the short term, if we are to believe both the HCF and College statements of intent for the protection and relatively benign uses planned for the Plantation, the College’s offer may very well be the best option. McLeod would be in public hands and entrusted to one of this State’s best institutions of higher learning. Provided ample provisions for public access and enjoyment were assured by the College, its purchase of McLeod could end years of false starts, shameful neglect, and agony over the future of one of the last remaining, nearly intact historic Sea Island plantations in America – if only life were so simple.

For the more skeptical locals all to familiar with the covert governance by the Banana Republic of Charleston, the College’s offer to purchase McLeod has more sinister possibilities – all orchestrated by the scrawny fingers of Charleston’s own Pericles pulling levers behind the curtains cloaking the second floor executive spaces of Charleston City Hall. First and foremost, Pericles has no intent to allow the uniqueness of McLeod Plantation to become another public historic venue readily accessible to both locals and tourist alike. He cannot allow a cultural time capsule like McLeod to become a competing threat to his proposed mega-million dollar African-American Museum or his beloved, albeit nearly bankrupt Aquarium. Least of all, he would rather loose his next election than allow the upstart Town of James Island anything that would become a focal point for the uniqueness of James Island.

As for Charleston County PRC, one could argue that it was were never more than an emasculated stalking horse, offering false hope to those who were repelled by the threat that the College of the Building Arts posed to the sanctity of the Plantation. The 90-day HCF option provided to the College Foundation may be nothing more than a typical Pericles holding tactic until after one of his prized and bought-by-the-pound sycophants is reelected to City Council District 12 on the Island.

Several decades ago an editor of the Palter and Chatter publicly belittled a former defender of the Island’s independence as a “believer in Santa Clause”. Although it’s still a few months until the holiday season, those who would believe that the HCF and College are the bearer of anything other than lumps of coal for McLeod are just as naive.

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