At first glance, the brown brick facade of the Chicora Graded School is a faded piece of history in North Charleston's Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood.
Broken glass windows line its hallways. Power cords drape from busted out ceilings. A rich musty smell fills old classrooms where chalkboards have been blank since the school closed in 2012.
But if local community developer Metanoia is successful, the building won't look this way for long.
The nonprofit has a $14 million plan to rehabilitate the nearly century-old building, a project that includes:
- Early childhood education classrooms for neighborhood children
- A performing arts venue with room for 300
- Artist spaces
- Office space for nonprofits
On Tuesday, the Rev. Bill Stanfield, CEO of Metanoia, waded through the school's crumbling hallways and pointed out the first floor classrooms, which will once again become places for learning with a focus on math and science education. The upstairs classrooms, he said, would be converted to office cubicles for other nonprofits.
Other classrooms would become studio space for local artists, while the school's old auditorium would transform into a 300-seat community venue. Artist studios and a mid-sized theater are sorely lacking in the Charleston region, North Charleston Cultural Arts director Kyle Lahm has said.
"This is part of a bigger vision for us," Stanfield said. "The way this community is renewed ... could provide a model for the nation. Finding a way to invest that doesn't shove every who lives here aside."
Originally built as workforce housing near the Navy Base, Chicora-Cherokee is one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Its 1930s-era elementary school was initially a segregated school for the white children of these families, but after World War II, white flight affected the area. Today, the neighborhood is home to mostly African-American residents, and Chicora Elementary has been one of the lowest-performing schools in Charleston County.
The school is currently owned by the city of North Charleston, which acquired the property from the Charleston County School District after a new school was built nearby. In August of 2017, the city gave Metanoia an 18-month deadline to secure financing.
While the total cost of the project is $14 million, $6 million in philanthropic donations will unlock two types of federal tax credits upon which this project hinges: historic and new market. Both credits — and by extension, Metanoia’s project — were protected in the GOP tax plan, passed in 2018.
Stanfield said for every $1 given as a donation, there are an additional $1 to $2 available in tax credits. Investors can be assured historic features of the 1930s-era school, from its wooden auditorium seats to original windows, will be restored.
This week, Ingevity, a global manufacturer of specialty chemicals based in North Charleston, made one of its largest donations ever to the Chicora project in the amount of $400,000. Because of the tax credits, that check will equate to more than $1 million in eventual funding.
If enough philanthropic money is raised before tax credit deadlines in April, renovations could be done as early as 2020, Stanfield said.
On Tuesday, Mayor Keith Summey addressed a crowd inside the school. He donned an orange T-shirt, in celebration of Clemson University's football championship win. He said the renovations will be part of what makes this area of the city great again — it has been blighted since the closure of the Navy Base in the 1990s.
"We believe this area is the next bloom," he said.
Metanoia is headquartered inside a Reynolds Avenue church near the school and has a community-oriented focus on revitalizing the neighborhood, from providing after-school programs to working on affordable housing.