Charleston's planned International African American Museum, which has been in the works for more than 18 years, is closing in on its $75 million fundraising goal.
The Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority voted Tuesday to approve $11 million for the museum, essentially completing the state's $25 million pledge toward the project and ensuring that construction will begin early next year.
Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who has spearheaded efforts to build the museum, called the RDA's pledge "really wonderful news and a great partnership.”
The RDA's board unanimously agreed to the donation, which will be paid in two equal installments during the next two fiscal years.
Museum CEO Michael Boulware Moore said the $11 million "gets us across a major fundraising obstacle.”
Retired Rear Adm. William Schachte, chair of the RDA's board, said the authority was formed in 1994 after the Charleston Naval Base was targeted for closure, and its mission extends beyond the former base and shipyard to include revitalizing the tri-county area.
“The IAAM will tell an important part of our nation’s history,” he said. “Part of our mission at the Charleston RDA is to help revitalize the tri-county area. The IAAM will certainly impact our region and communities well beyond South Carolina, in a positive way.”
The RDA's move comes more than a month after state lawmakers declined to insert $5 million into the state's 2018-19 budget for the museum, money that Riley had hoped to secure.
Despite that setback, he remained upbeat. Riley said Tuesday that state lawmakers encouraged him to reach out to the RDA, a state agency. Schachte said the pledge has been in the works for several weeks but the memorandum of understanding wasn't placed on an agenda until Tuesday.
"Without legislators' leadership and energy, it would not have been possible," Riley said.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, sponsored a bill to reauthorize the RDA during the past session, and the agency’s new lease on life helped make this possible. "I didn't do it just for this," he said Tuesday.
“Not everybody supports the state donating to projects like this, but the clear majority of the members of the General Assembly do,” Stavrinakis added. “I’m certainly happy they did it, and I believe a number of folks in the body will be happy they did it.”
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said Tuesday he has no issue with the RDA's donation and considers the Charleston museum a worthy project.
But since the RDA has shown the agency has a robust balance sheet, Summey will try to have it transfer ownership of several former Navy base properties, including the Admiral's House and the Eternal Father of the Sea chapel, to the city earlier than planned. "I will be bringing that up with the chairman and director," Summey said.
Riley said he expected construction would soon begin on the museum building, which will be built next to the Charleston Maritime Center and on top of Gadsden's Wharf. The wharf was the last major slave embarkation point before the international trade ended, at least in the legal sense, in the early 1800s.
Museum officials have said they still have less than $1 million in private fundraising to secure.
Schachte, who grew up in Charleston and is Riley’s cousin, said he was glad to have the opportunity to be part of the museum, which he said will bring a major economic impact.
"I feel strongly that this museum will be very, very beneficial to the state and to visitors,” he said.
The Charleston RDA, in partnership with the city of North Charleston, previously has focused its revitalization efforts on several historic properties on the former base, including several residences used by naval officers.
It also helped establish Clemson University’s nearby Drive Train Testing Facility by granting $8 million in cash and $10 million worth of land, and the RDA is responsible for building a future museum to house the H. L. Hunley submarine.
The city of Charleston, which has pledged land and $12.5 million toward the museum, will oversee its construction. City Council soon is expected to consider a construction contract with Turner Construction and Brownstone Construction Group of Columbia. The museum building was designed by Moody Nolan and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
"We're confident construction will begin in the first quarter of next year," Riley said.