The Fort Dorchester Booster Club will have to sell a lot of VIP football tickets and prime parking spaces in the next 18 months if it’s going to pay its debt to the city of North Charleston on time.
In late 2011, the city provided $311,717 for a state-of-the-art video scoreboard for the Dorchester District 2 school’s Bagwell Stadium with the understanding that the booster club would repay $261,717 by July 31, 2018.
To date, the volunteer club has repaid just $87,000, including $25,000 on Jan. 10, leaving a balance of about $175,000.
“We don’t have the money to pay for it right now, and it’s unlikely that we’ll have enough to pay it off by this time next year,” said Lee Edenfield, who has been president of the club for about five years. “I don’t think there’s any way we could get the total amount even if we cut everything. The revenue is not there.”
The city is not yet concerned about the debt, Mayor Keith Summey said.
“We can cross that bridge when the time comes," he said, "but we’re all working for the benefit of the students.”
The issue came to light in December, when City Council discussed sponsorships and grants.
The 55-foot-tall and 32-foot-wide Daktronics scoreboard boasts a 14-by-25 video screen that can broadcast live footage and instant replays. When it was installed, it was the biggest video screen of any high school in South Carolina and one of the largest in the Southeast.
“It’s been a big thing for the North Charleston community,” said Patriots Athletic Director Steve LaPrad. “It’s something for everybody to take pride in.”
The club planned to pay for the sign by selling advertising on 12 spaces surrounding the video screen, but Edenfield said it probably overestimated the desirability of those spaces. "We had originally anticipated that we’d be able to sell more ads and for more money than we ended up being able to,” he said.
Ad sales have picked up since the team brought home the Division I-AAAA state championship in 2015, he said, but “they’re still not as good as they need to be."
Sold out, the scoreboard would bring in about $50,000 a year, but the club usually gets only about half that.
The boosters’ budget without the scoreboard revenue is only about $30,000, raised mainly from the sale of seats in the stadium, priority parking and concessions at home football games, with occasional fundraisers, such as pancake breakfasts. The funds fill in gaps left by a diminishing athletic department budget, Edenfield said.
Who's big idea?
It’s unclear how the school got into the financial arrangement with North Charleston. Both sides say it was the others’ idea.
The deal happened around the same time the city started a $22 million renovation at the North Charleston Coliseum that included an upgrade of its own scoreboard.
“The impression I got was they were working on doing something with Daktronics in the Coliseum and they just sort of tacked this into the same project,” Edenfield said.
He said he was not privy to negotiations until “pretty much after the deal was done."
City officials say they merely recommended Daktronics to a school that wanted a new scoreboard and asked for help.
The minutes of a special City Council Finance Committee meeting on Aug. 25, 2011, note that Fort Dorchester “is wishing to replace their football scoreboard,” and the booster club has “asked for the City’s assistance in helping with the upfront cost.”
The committee, which includes the entire council, unanimously approved the funding and directed the city’s legal department to draft an agreement calling for the club to pay $60,000 annually for five years. Less than an hour later, the full council voted to approve the funding over 10 years with no payment amounts noted.
The District 2 board also had a different understanding. Their minutes from Nov. 14, 2011, note that “North Charleston and local businesses have donated” the scoreboard. That night, the school board voted unanimously to pay for electrical work to install the sign, which was $24,480. District officials said this week their involvement does not go beyond that.
The sign was installed in mid-December 2011, but Summey and Edenfield didn’t sign the financial agreement until January 2013.
“That’s how long it took to get all the language and get everybody together to sign it,” Edenfield said. “We were working on it the whole time. It just took a while to execute.”
The contract, which notes the city’s $50,000 donation, calls for the club to reimburse the city “periodically when possible” with full payment by July 31, 2018.
LaPrad said the school does not intend to default on the loan.
“We’re doing the daggum best we can,” he said. “It’s our plan to pay it off, but we can only pay back what we sell. It’s a heck of an undertaking.”
Investing in students
On Thursday, North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said the city’s donation was in exchange for five years of advertising on the board at $10,000 per year.
“As we do all the time, we take the unorthodox approach to benefit our city’s students,” he said.
If it were to forgive a large chunk of the debt, there would be ample precedent. Earlier this month, Summey called the city's schools, "one of North Charleston's weakest points." While they are run by separate school boards independent of the city, he also said the city supports public schools any way it can.
Johnson said in recent years, North Charleston has also spent:
• $1.73 million on property for the new Chicora Elementary School
• About $1 million for athletic fields at River Oaks Middle School in exchange for community use of the school’s gym
• $280,000 for lights on the athletic fields at Cathedral of Praise in exchange for city use
• About $2.7 million annually on school resource officers
• Thousands of dollars on sports and playground equipment for schools