Troubled Chicora area takes another hit “Critical” hospital project in peril, area remains a “food desert”

Charleston County is considering whether to purchase the old Navy hospital from the developers of the Chicora Life Center.

Efforts to revive the economically depressed southern end of North Charleston continue to falter, leaving residents without basic services two decades after the closure of the nearby Navy base.

Earlier this week, plans for the Chicora Life Center in the vacant Navy hospital were derailed when Charleston County Council voted to break its lease with the project developer.

The multimillion-dollar initiative in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood is not necessarily dead. County Council asked its staff to explore options that could put the project back on track.

County Attorney Joe Dawson contacted developer Douglas Durbano, a Utah lawyer and principal in Chicora Life Center, to discuss whether the county might purchase the hospital, Durbano said Thursday.

“Yes, Chicora would consider selling the building,” Durbano said in an email. “We will pursue it in hopes of finding a successful outcome to the Chicora project for the county and the residents which it will serve as a social services hub.”

The developers agreed to buy the hospital from North Charleston in 2012 and completed the $5 million deal in 2014 — $3 million more than what the city had paid for it. Donald Trump Jr., son of the GOP’s leading presidential candidate, was a minority investor. Later that year, the developers struck a lease deal with the county.

A copy of a letter from Durbano to the county dated Wednesday says the county does not have legal grounds for breaking that lease because the developer has met his obligations. The letter asks the county to comply with the lease’s terms or risk being sued.

“The county has no response other than the Council action to terminate the lease,” said spokesman Shawn Smetana.

Chicora Life Center LC billed the county $604,871 for four months rent even though county staff never occupied the building, Smetana said.

This week’s 5-3 vote to break the lease prevailed with support from council members Elliott Summey, Dickie Schweers, Herb Sass, Colleen Condon and Joe Qualey. Voting no were members Teddie Pryor, Henry Darby and Anna Johnson.

“This (Chicora project) is something that is critically needed,” Pryor said before the vote.

Residents of the once-thriving neighborhood fell on hard times when the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard closed its doors two decades ago. The nearby neighborhoods are isolated, and residents must make relatively long trips for basic services, Pryor said.

The area has no grocery store — making it a so-called food desert — and no walk-in bank, medical services or post office. Instead, there are plans for a massive new rail yard nearby. The community is home to a scrap yard, warehouses, and train and truck traffic.

“It seems to me these folks are being dumped on and nothing is being done to help them,” he said.

Darby said the Chicora Life Center was so close to completion that name plates had gone up on office doors.

The Chicora developer put up millions of dollars to make the project happen. The county share was $92,000, he said.

“I think it’s sad. I think it’s shameful,” Darby said. “This is not right what this council is doing tonight.”

Council did not cite its reasons for breaking the lease with Chicora Life LLC, but some members previously voiced concerns about missed deadlines.

Last May, Chicora sent the county a “ready for occupancy” letter, but the county responded a week later that the developer had 30 days to complete tenant improvements under the terms of the lease. On Aug. 26, the county notified Chicora a second time saying that it must fulfill its obligations under the lease by Nov. 1 or the county would terminate the agreement.

The deal has remained in limbo since then.

This week’s County Council motion says Chicora failed to cure its default and contends that the facility is ready for occupancy even though the appropriate agencies haven’t issued licenses. “Therefore, the county’s purposes under the lease and need for the facility have been frustrated,” the motion says.

The county’s lease deal for part of the hospital building calls for payments once the new offices could be occupied. The county’s agreement to become the anchor tenant helped developers secure a $10.9 million loan, part of which helped them buy the building.

Plans for the Chicora Life Center were announced in July 2014. At that time, redevelopment of the Navy hospital on Rivers Avenue was envisioned as a catalyst to revive the fortunes of Chicora-Cherokee with an influx of workers, new restaurants and retail.

Today, the neighborhood has many boarded-up houses and a big vacant school.

Plans for the first tenants of the 400,000 square foot, 10-story hospital included primary offices of the health department, substance abuse services and the coroner. Key county social services would be centralized in one location at the hospital on Rivers Avenue, which is the busiest route on the CARTA bus system.

The county leased 58,540 square feet on the first, second and eighth floors of the building for its Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. The county was to pay $12.50 per square foot per year, officials have said.

The health department was to occupy 28,360 square feet on the first floor. Those services are currently located in buildings on peninsular Charleston that the county sold to the Medical University for about $17 million.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 843-937-5711.