Residents fear they will be left behind

Penny Middleton (right) and her daughter Tommie walk on Success Street last week in the Chicora neighborhood, where residents fear they will be saddled with the industrial pollution of a railyard being built on the former Navy base on the other side of Success Street without getting any of the economic benefits.

Penny Middleton worries that the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood in North Charleston lacks a voice in the discussion about plans for a massive railyard at its back door. She fears that noise, pollution, bright lights and ground vibrations will disturb the peace of her Success Street home.

"I'm all for change and bringing in business, but not at the expense of the less fortunate. If there are jobs, who will get the jobs?" she said.

The $130 million Palmetto Railways project on 90 acres at the old Navy base will include 21 rail lines where cargo in shipping containers will be transferred to trucks and rail cars.

The situation reminds her of the changes in Charleston where she grew up in a housing project. Fancy condos and apartments have sprung up in the area of her old neighborhood. She fears forces beyond the control of residents will reshape Chicora-Cherokee.

Rather than a railyard, the neighborhood needs athletic fields - she wishes there were a place for sporting events and other activities. Sterett Hall, a community gymnasium, will be torn down to make way for the railyard, she noted.

The project is part of redevelopment considered vital to the area's economy after the closure of the Navy base. But some who call Chicora home question whether the economically-depressed neighborhood will be lifted up or left behind. Residents worry that they will be saddled with the environmental effects from industries next door without seeing any benefits.

A.J. Davis, president of the Chicora-Cherokee Neighborhood Council, said those fears are fueled by an environmental review process that some residents say has yet to really address their concerns.

"Many residents are in the dark. For me, it still comes down to the issue of respect for our community," he said.

There is a sense of apathy because residents think that getting involved will not make a difference, he said.

"We know we will lose Sterett Hall. We're not sure what else we will lose," he said.

Like Middleton, Davis wonders if residents will be afforded the opportunity to train for new jobs at the railyard.

"There are just more questions than answers right now. I have not heard of anything yet that would classify as a benefit to Chicora. No one approached the community and said, 'Here are some positives,' " he said.

The neighborhood bustled during the heyday of the Naval Shipyard, which was shut down in the mid-90s when Congress sought to scale back the military budget by closing bases.

Today, storefront churches line Reynolds Avenue as it cuts through Chicora-Cherokee between Rivers and Spruill avenues. The neighborhood landscape includes an empty school, boarded up homes and shuttered businesses. Some 2,789 residents call the area home. Of those, 2,429 are African Americans. Up to 90 percent of residents live on a low to moderate income, according to Census figures provided by the city.

Chicora has long been considered one of North Charleston's most crime- and drug-ridden communities. It has one of the highest child poverty rates in South Carolina.

Davis said his goal is to help residents to understand their rights as a community. He aims to raise awareness of the importance of civic involvement and engagement as a means to advocate effectively for change.

"We are bracing for impact because we know it is coming. We can't stop it. We as a community need to come together," he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing an environmental impact statement on the Navy Base Intermodal Container Transfer Facility. The Corps has held two community meetings and workshops on the proposed project.

Comments were received regarding the project and issues that should be evaluated in the study.

Air quality, noise, light, environmental justice, socioeconomics, visual resources and aesthetics, cultural resources, aquatic resources, water quality and potential impacts on roadway and railway infrastructure were some of the issues identified by the public.

"One of the primary goals of the National Environmental Policy Act is to 'insure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken.' As a result, community input and involvement are critical throughout the NEPA process," Corps Charleston District spokeswoman Sara Corbett said in an e-mail.

To maximize community participation, the Corps mailed public notices to adjacent property owners and bought newspaper ads two Sundays before each meeting. Signs were placed around the former Navy base announcing the meetings.

"We did everything we could think of to reach as many people as possible in hopes that they would attend the meetings," she said.

The Corps' next community meeting will be late this year or early next year when the draft environmental impact statement will be released for review and comment.

Community members who want to learn more about the project may visit its website at The project manager Nat Ball may be contacted at 843-329-8047.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711