NORTH CHARLESTON — Plans are moving forward to redevelop a dilapidated school building further damaged by a fire last year.
The city's Finance Committee voted unanimously Feb. 18 to sell the old Chicora Elementary School to Metanoia.
The North Charleston nonprofit, which had been leasing the school site at the corner of Chicora Avenue and Success Street from the city since 2017, has been working to refurbish the run-down structure. The goal is to make it a usable space that will include an early childhood education center, community theater, a city-operated art studio and a school.
The initial vote to sell the property recognizes the need for Metanoia to own the building to obtain insurance claims funds for the project, said the Rev. Bill Stanfield, chief executive of Metanoia.
"The city has done right by us," Stanfield said. "One of the things that has been determined in the (insurance claims) process is it will be very helpful for us to own the building."
The Chicora school project is among the most notable shaping up on the city's south end as it will provide the community with a much-needed asset to the neighborhood.
The final vote will be decided at the March 11 City Council meeting where the decision is expected to pass.
The purchase agreement says Metanoia could buy the property with a lump sum payment of $205,000. It also contains a clause that would return the property to the city if the project hasn't begun within 36 months of the closing date.
The school, which was shuttered in 2012, is in Chicora-Cherokee, a predominantly Black neighborhood being increasingly threatened with the prospect of gentrification.
Neighborhood President Aj Davis recognizes the community is "under a microscope" as more development shapes up on the old Navy base and throughout the southern end.
He said the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood has been intimately involved in the planning of the project, which he called organic and beneficial.
"I see it as a positive use of the property," Davis said.
Working to revitalize the structure built in the 1930s has been no easy feat. A fire in February last year consumed the building's auditorium, adding additional financial challenges to project.
Metanoia had enough financing to cover the project, but the fire increased costs. In addition to insurance claims, the nonprofit is hoping to fund the $27 million endeavor with state and federal tax credits.
Stanfield hopes the claims process will wrap up in three months. The organization also plans to begin preliminary repairs to the structure soon.
Metanoia aims to close on the financing next year and soon after begin construction.
The nonprofit plans to open the redeveloped facility in 2023.
“It's been a very long journey," Stanfield said. "The journey is not over. We still have a lot of work to do. We see it as keeping our promises to the community."
What would've been the facility's key tenant, Allegro Charter School of Music, pulled out of the plan due to the pandemic last year, delaying the renovation.
Stanfield said Metanoia is in the process of "vetting a couple strong candidates." The organization that will take residence will be education-focused, he said.
What is concrete is Metanoia will run an early learning center inside the facility. The center will serve children 6 weeks to 4 years old, putting them on a promising path toward academic success, Stanfield said.
This is much needed in neighborhoods like Chicora-Cherokee, which often lack quality early childhood programs, Davis said. The result ends up being students who enter kindergarten unprepared, he said.
“It’s something that’s meeting an existing need for our neighborhood," Davis said.
Councilman Michael Brown, who represents the district that covers the area, expressed similar support for the project.
Mayor Keith Summey said he’s glad to see some closure come to the process. He thinks the redeveloped facility will be a catalyst that will spark other kinds of investment, such as upkeep of existing homes and continued construction of new ones.
The deal for the building also involves an urban farm just southwest of the school, all of which currently belong to the city. If the city sells the old school, the property will be subdivided, potentially allowing Fresh Future to buy from the city land it has been leasing since 2014.
Summey said a decision has not been made yet on whether the city will sell the land to the farm.
Fresh Future operates a small grocery store in an area federally designated as a food desert due to limited access to a nearby supermarket.