County may sell services center: Former Dorchester hospital in Summerville a hub of activity

The site of the old Dorchester County Memorial Hospital is where residents can pay their taxes, get permits and handle other official business. The service center could be sold to help with Dorchester County's budget shortfall.

Brad Nettles

SUMMERVILLE -- The old Dorchester County Memorial Hospital is a hub in this town, an entire city block that is the services center for the lower county, right there at the busy intersection of Main Street and U.S. Highway 78.

It's where residents in the busy suburbs can go to pay taxes, get building permits or flu shots.

It might soon be up for sale.

Cringing at the impending round of state cuts to its already constricted budget, Dorchester County Council is looking at selling the 4-acre property to bolster its sagging funds. Under the plan, the array of human service offices in the buildings would move to smaller facilities in the lower county.

The service staffs in those buildings and in St. George would be reduced to single sets of staff operating part-time offices, moving back and forth between the towns. Council also splits meetings between a council chamber there and one in St. George.

The facility dates to the years before World War II. It's enough of a landmark in town that residents launched a petition in the 1970s to maintain services there when the county looked to demolish it after the hospital closed, and the Summerville Preservation Society launched an effort that saved it.

Among a host of other longtime residents, Ricky Waring, the town's mayor pro tem, was born there.

"It's kind of shocking to hear about it," Waring said. "That's a big change. I hope the county doesn't move (the services) too far. We need those offices down in the lower part of the county more than they need them in St. George just based on population," he said. But Summerville, too, is battling revenue shortfalls.

"If it becomes a commercial piece of property it would be a boost to the town," he said.

"We're going to live in some difficult (revenue) times, and we have to make some difficult choices," said County Councilman George Bailey of St. George, who pitched the idea to council after observing what he called the light use by residents of both sets of offices. "It may be the most valuable piece of property in Summerville. Do we really need it five days a week?"

Council Chairman Larry Hargett said the plan is being actively considered by council and that Jason Ward, county administrator, is studying it. "We're looking at it, but nothing's been decided. I expect it to move to the front burner within a month," he said. "Anything we can do not to raise taxes."

The move would come as Summerville civic leaders look for ways to bring a hotel to the downtown to boost its business, civic and social functions.

As a piece of real estate the hospital property "would be choice," Summerville commercial Realtor Robert Pratt said. "It would be a wonderful hotel site, fast food on four corners or bank property."

Consolidation of the duplicate sets of services at either end of the 30-mile long county has been hashed over since the county's formation in the 1800s, as a convenience as well as a cost-saver.

St. George, in the more sparsely populated upper end, is the county seat, and the location of the county's courthouse. Most of the population live in suburban Summerville.

When the county renovated the hospital site for satellite offices in the 1970s, they were open only part time, Waring said. The Dorchester County Sheriff's Department also ran a jail on the site until its satellite jail opened in Jedburg, a few miles up U.S. 78.

As recently as the 1990s, a petition circulated to relocate the county seat and courthouse in St. George to Ridgeville, closer to the geographic center of the place.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.