Impacting the arts

A cardboard casket sits in front of Sterett Hall during a march to call attention to the new rail yard to be built next to the Chicora Cherokee neighborhood in North Charleston.

As the arts flourish on the Charleston peninsula during Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festival, a few miles up the road in North Charleston an important community cultural center faces imminent closure.

Sterett Hall Recreation Center on the former Charleston Naval Base has served as a hub for North Charleston’s arts and culture scene since 1996. Earlier this month, the North Charleston Arts Festival and the Crimson Screen Horror Film Festival used the building.

The 960-seat auditorium and meeting rooms serve as regular practice, exhibition and performance spaces for local artists, choirs, grass-roots theater organizations and African dance groups. The facility also includes a gymnasium and separate weight room.

Now, it’s about to close.

Sterett Hall is among the buildings on the old Navy base being acquired by Palmetto Railways, a division of the South Carolina Department of Commerce. It’s a victim of the new rail yard project with the city of North Charleston, in which the city will receive $8 million over four years to mitigate the impacts of rail access. The city also had designated the area a tax increment financing zone, incurring debt of $6.4 million, which Palmetto Railways paid, according to Allison Skipper, director of marketing and communications at the Department of Commerce.

In all, Palmetto Railways has spent $14.4 million on the project, Skipper said.

“All of this was done in consideration of a number impacts to the community, not the least of which was the loss of Sterett Hall,” she said.

Palmetto Railways began leasing Sterett Hall to the city in May 2014 at no cost, Skipper said. The lease was extended to June 1, with an option for monthly renewal because of project delays. Palmetto Railways plans to give notice by mid-June that it will terminate the lease by mid-July in order to begin the construction of the new rail yard, she said.

Two other arts-related facilities — the Rhodes Arts Center, where artists and musicians rent monthly studio space, and its neighboring production hall — were closed on March 1.

A.J. Davis is the community president of Chicora-Cherokee, a predominantly black neighborhood that borders the Navy yard where 90 percent of the population lives on low to moderate income. He said this loss continues a larger trend of economic disinvestment in the area since the 1996 closure of the base, formerly South Carolina’s largest employer.

“I understand building the rail yard is part of economic progress and development,” Davis said. “But I don’t feel that the impact of how that would affect existing area residents is being taken into consideration. Many folks feel excluded and are struggling to come to terms with the fact that this community resource is going to be lost.”

The Rev. Bill Stanfield, president of the nonprofit Metanoia, is a Chicora-Cherokee resident who has expressed concern over the rail yard project since the plans were released in 2012. In some places, proposed rails would rest only 50 feet away from homes, and residents fear increased light and noise pollution, Stanfield said.

Stanfield, like other Chicora-Cherokee residents, is especially apprehensive that closing Sterett Hall will isolate the community from its primary cultural resource since the neighborhood is surrounded by industrial properties on both sides. Also disconcerting, he said, is that the loss of this community asset could result in more crime.

“Sterett Hall is a place where youth, particularly adolescent young men, go to hang out,” he said. “Whatever the city might save in cost by not building a new facility, they will spend in law enforcement. Crime tends to spike in the afternoon, and these are the hours when Sterett Hall entertains youth.”

Sen. Marlon Kimpson also has expressed concern about the loss of the auditorium and community center. Kimpson wrote a letter Friday to the Federal Railroad Administration expressing support for the rail project and “intermodal facility,” stating that infrastructure improvements benefit the economy, but he also conveyed constituent concerns about the loss of Sterett Hall and an inadequate buffer zone.

“It is my sincere hope that Palmetto Railways will work with local leaders to address these concerns, which I believe can be adequately resolved,” Kimpson wrote. “The creation of a comparable recreation facility and more substantial buffer zones will make the new facility a true ‘win/win’ for the residents living next to the facility and our state’s commerce system.”

The Navy Base Intermodal Container Transfer Facility will be a 90-acre project site where shipping containers will be transferred between trucks and trains. The State Port Authority also is building a new container port nearby, both set to be completed in 2018.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency responsible for the development of the Environment Impact Study for the project. As of October 2014, the Corps of Engineers had identified two alternate sites that could be considered. An initial draft of their findings is expected to be released by late June, and a public hearing and commentary period will follow.

Stanfield questioned the closing of Sterett Hall before the Environmental Impact Study is finalized.

“It seems to me, at the very least, the folks building the rail yard could wait to get their permit before tearing it down,” he said. “The city has offered to keep it open until that happens. If they cared about the community, they would wait, not just tear it down to tear it down.”

The city of North Charleston’s Cultural Arts Department currently manages the facility. Ryan Johnson, the mayor’s spokesman, said the department has no plans yet for an existing structure to replace Sterett Hall, though they are looking at alternative locations for the groups that use it. Johnson said there are other community centers near the area for smaller-scale programs, but it is difficult to find a building that could replicate the 1,000-seat auditorium and gymnasium.

“We are willing to work with community leaders, like Davis and Stanfield, as we have in the past,” Johnson said. “Currently, we don’t have any land or building plans for a new facility, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be something like that in the future,” he said.

Jon Robinson has worked as a recreation department helper at Sterett Hall for more than four years; he also coaches youth basketball there. Robinson said families frequently ask him when the facility is closing and if a comparable community center will be built in the area.

“I tell them, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think anyone does,’ ” he said. “When we heard the news, the money had already begun rolling in and we knew there was no stopping it now. That’s how the world works.”

Maribel Acosta, who runs the Spanish-language theater and art group Mag Art, said she will feel the loss of Sterett Hall acutely. Born in Cuba, Acosta is active within the local Hispanic community and has used Sterett Hall free of charge for more than a year, drawing audiences of 700 or more.

“Working here is a big-time investment, and knowing that a theater is going to stop existing feels like losing a family member,” Acosta said.

Community outreach leader Lydia Cotton, who collaborates with Acosta, said she’s hopeful that their theater group will find another space.

“Losing this building is painful, but at the same time it gives us more strength to go forward and take the next step,” Cotton said. “I know the city of North Charleston will do their part. I’m going to help my city and try to prove that the time they let use this space for free was a worthwhile investment.”

For Stanfield, whose neighborhood has just one outdoor basketball court and one small playground, saving Sterett Hall or replacing it with a comparable cultural center is a necessity for community cohesion.

“I don’t know whose responsibility it ultimately is to build a new center, but at the end of the day, I just know it’s got to be built,” Stanfield said. “I am hopeful that the powers that be will get in a room and realize it’s universally better for all of us to have this facility, so let’s just make it happen.”

Seamus Kirst and Sydney Franklin are Goldring Arts Journalists from Syracuse University.