ST. HELENA ISLAND - Penn Center finds itself searching yet again for a new director, but some supporters say it also needs to look for something else.

The nonprofit needs to find a reliable source of money and possibly new partners that can help it maintain its historic campus and reach out to a Gullah-Geechee community struggling to preserve its identity along a rapidly changing coast, they say.

Penn Center Director Emeritus Emory Campbell, who created its successful Heritage Days celebration that takes place here each November, said the center still faces the same struggles, particularly financially, that he faced years ago.

"It's still a struggling institution," he said, "but I think the need is still here to assist families in improving their lives."

Last week, Director Michael Campi announced he was stepping down for personal reason after only a year on the job. Campi did not return messages last week, but the center said he had family obligations requiring he live closer to Conway. Before him, another director lasted only a week.

Center director of history, art and culture Victoria Smalls said the center would outline its search plans for a new executive director next month.

What is Penn Center

Founded as a school for freed slaves, Penn Center later served as a Jim Crow-era industrial school and then a retreat for leaders of the civil rights movement.

It includes 19 buildings and a museum on a live oak-studded site about 20 minutes from downtown Beaufort. It has a visitors center and operates as a sort of hybrid between a historic site, a conference center and a community outreach organization.

The center also owns about 500 acres on the sea islands, about 40 percent of which is farmed by others in rental agreements. About 250 acres have been placed in a conservation easement with the Beaufort County Open Land Trust.

During the 1960s, it was used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1974, the Penn Center nominated its 50-acre core as a National Historic Landmark District, one of only four in the state and its only African-American district.

About 20 years ago, it opened the York W. Bailey Museum, the first African American museum in Beaufort County, to interpret its own history as well as the Gullah-Geechee community of St. Helena Island.

The center also has an early childhood program that tries to help children prepare to enter school, and it also provided some of its property for a new Beaufort County Library branch and a new facility for Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, Inc.

Linda Mack Jenkins, the center's day to day operations coordinator, said Penn Center's operations aren't affected by Campi's departure. Its museum is still open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and its next big event is a fundraiser on Labor Day.

But finances remain a challenge. Its 2012 tax return, the most recent available, showed revenue of $931,000 but $1.4 million in expenses - a $477,000 deficit.

The previous year, however, it brought in $1.6 million and ran a $415,699 surplus.

Searching for answers

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling called Penn Center "one of the most important cultural historic and humanitarian institutions in Beaufort County." But he added: "It has been struggling with its direction and identity. The fight about its direction just wore me out."

Keyserling is not currently on the board but is familiar with the center and previously helped lead a capital campaign for it.

"They have a huge asset with many old fragile buildings that have extraordinarily high maintenance costs," he said, "so one has to figure out how you keep it going through programming that pays to maintain the facilities, and I don't have the answer."

Ideas have been floated about asking the National Park System to take it over and maintain it as a National Historic Monument or striking a deal with a private company that would benefit from the center's potential as a tourist draw.

Mike Allen of the National Park Service, who guided the agency's efforts to create the Gullah-Geechee Corridor's master plan, said he has been involved with Penn for about 15 years and said its partnership with the Park Service has been "invaluable."

"Penn is recognized as a pivotal place in the corridor as a whole," he added. "I would just hope as they move forward in selecting whoever he or she is (as the next director), that this person will help carry on the tradition that Penn has in terms of community, in terms of preservation and in terms of support of the life and heritage of Gullah Geechee culture.

Allen said he realizes maintaining such a historic property is always a challenge. "Without an endowment or strong backing either from local government or state government or the federal government, then fundraising is a central tenant."

Campi's goal was to turn Penn Center into more of a destination, one that would tell the story of the slave descendants on South Carolina's sea islands -and that could piggy-back on new attention from the national Gullah-Geechee Corridor effort.

Campbell said the center's other opportunity is finding a way to help Gullah families keep their land in an era when small farming doesn't bring in as much income as other jobs.

Keeping land in the Gullah families is considered a top priority of those seeking to preserve the unique culture of the island's slave descendants, but that land isn't as profitable or necessary for the families to farm as it once was.

"We have a more sophisticated coastline and sea islands than we had 50 years ago," he said.

Beaufort County School Board member Michael Rivers, who also is a minister and Air Force veteran, grew up two miles from Penn Center and considers Campbell a mentor.

He said he remembers the days when King was staying there, and he has watched the center change through the years.

As for the center today, Rivers said, "Whenever there's a problem or challenge, it always gives us a good opportunity. I think that's where we are now. We have an opportunity to be even more creative."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.