Cypress Gardens, Berkeley’s only county-owned tourist attraction, took a hit so hard from the historic floods in October 2015 that it remains closed three years later.
Since then, while officials have been slogging their way through the maze of paperwork and red tape required by state and federal agencies, Hurricane Matthew (2016), Tropical Storm Irma (2017) and a snowstorm (January) have all rolled in.
Now, officials are hoping the popular Moncks Corner site will open in January.
But some doubt that prediction.
“We’ve heard ‘three to six months’ every three months to six months since 2016,” said Moncks Corner resident Katherine Roberts, once a frequent visitor to the park.
The 170-acre sanctuary is a popular destination for field trips, tourists, and locals. Originally part of Dean Hall, one of the Cooper River’s largest rice plantations, the park drew about 50,000 visitors annually, with schoolchildren accounting for about 20 percent. It has been featured in national magazines, television shows and movies, including the films “Swamp Thing,” “The Notebook,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Patriot.”
People call daily wanting to schedule a wedding or bring a class, Director Heather McDowell said.
“It seems like it has been closed such a long time,” said Goose Creek resident Sandy Flowers, a mom of three elementary school students. “We used to take our family there a couple times a year, and the kids went on field trips there nearly every year. We loved the boat tours through the swamp and the butterfly garden.”
County officials say they understand residents’ dissatisfaction with the slow progress but the delays aren’t their fault. In addition to the mountains of paperwork required, they’ve also been plagued by a high employee turnover at the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has sometimes resulted in duplicate work, some said.
“I get it that there’s frustration out there with folks, but they need to understand that we’re operating on a schedule that we can’t control,” Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan said earlier this year.
Even though they haven’t been able to enjoy the gardens or paddle through the blackwater swamp, Berkeley County residents have continued to fund the park while it’s been closed.
Since 2010, the county has collected a separate property tax for Cypress Gardens that amounts to about $10 annually on a $250,000 owner-occupied home.
Last year, that revenue totaled $963,806, according to county spokeswoman Hannah Moldenhauer.
Expenditures, including salaries, were $663,839 last year, she said. The park still employs eight workers — a third of its previous staff — to care for the facilities, plants and animals.
But now officials hope the park is finally on its way to reopening.
On Aug. 27, Berkeley County Council approved a $363,695 contract for the renovation of the boat dock. Other repairs and improvements that have been underway include work on the walkways, bridges, parking lot, ticket booth, visitors’ center, front lawn and restrooms.
Every building except the ticket book and classroom building was damaged in 2015, when at least a foot of water collected in most buildings. Carpet, tile and walls had to be ripped out as mold sprouted in the days afterward.
The launch for the flat-bottomed boats, which toured among bald cypress and tupelo trees, was left pitching forward, the dirt-and-gravel support underneath washed away. Parts of the 3-mile trail system through the wetlands were also washed out.
Damage has been estimated at $4 million.
But the county did not simply want to rebuild the park as it was. They wanted to make improvements to old buildings and move others to more picturesque locations in an effort to make the park more profitable.
In addition, after-storm assessments found existing damage, including three structurally deficient pedestrian bridges, that was not storm-related but that needed to be fixed nonetheless.
A fundraising campaign called “Bloom: The $6 Million Campaign to Rebuild Cypress Gardens” has been put on hold until January, officials said. Introduced to council by Callanan in April 2017, the campaign was to include $1.25 million for an environmental education center, $800,000 for a visitor center and $3.8 million for a conference and event center.
“We’re hopeful that it will be open soon,” said Joan Stearman, head of the nonprofit Friends of Cypress Gardens. “We’re looking forward to again hosting plant sales, T-shirt sales and hamburger sales. We miss it.”
While waiting for the reopening, the group has frozen its savings of $30,000, typically used to support projects at the site.
Series of setbacks
The storm damage was just the latest in a series of setbacks Cypress Gardens has suffered, and it happened just as the park was beginning to turn a profit.
The site was having its best year ever, when a train hit the Cypress Gardens Road Bridge in April 2014, temporarily closing the most direct route to Cypress Gardens.
Berkeley County took over operations from the city of Charleston in 1996.
In 2008, critics called for the attraction to close after it finished the year $800,000 in debt. A year later, the county closed the reptile exhibit and shifted the focus to history. The Heritage Museum and Heirloom Garden was added to showcase items from the plantation’s slave settlement.