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With venues like Sterett Hall gone, North Charleston arts department craftily plans annual Arts Fest

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Didgeridoo Down Under.jpg (copy)

You never know what you might find at the North Charleston Arts Fest. Perhaps a didgeridoo performance for the kiddos?

The 36th annual North Charleston Arts Fest draws locals and tourists each year but festival-goers and artists may be curious about the seemingly random venues they go to. 

For example, there's a glass harp performance inside Deer Park Middle School. An Americana concert at Madra Rua Irish Pub. A hip-hop and coloring event inside the Purple Buffalo night club. 

The city's Cultural Arts Department is tasked with strategically stretching $200,000 to plan the five-day festival, which concludes Sunday. 

To pull it off, the department relies on partnerships with local arts organizations, breweries, bars, clubs, shops, restaurants, schools, public libraries and community centers for venues. 

"We do a lot with a little," Cultural Arts Director Kyle Lahm said. 

But it wasn't always that way. 

The Sterett Hall Recreation Center, a relic of the Navy base near the Cooper River, once housed the Cultural Arts Department offices and monthly rentals for artists and musicians.

Sterett Hall's 960-seat theater was a cheaper, more intimate alternative for performers who could not afford — or could not fill — the 2,300-seat Performing Arts Center. Under the city's supervision, the former Navy barracks of Sterett Hall were converted into the Rhodes Arts Center, which was rented by local artists and musicians on a monthly basis. 

Student March against Railyard (copy)

A cardboard casket sits in front of Sterett Hall during a march to call attention to the new rail yard to be built next to the Chicora Cherokee neighborhood July 23, 2014 in North Charleston. File/Staff

Sterett Hall also served the community as an accessible place for art. Choirs, grass-roots theater organizations and African dance groups performed there. 

In 2015, Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce, acquired Sterett Hall as part of a property transfer associated with the new railyard project. In addition to paying the city of North Charleston $8 million in mitigation funds over the course of four years, Palmetto Railways began paying the city's debt of $6.4 million of Tax Increment Financing bonds. (The rail project rendered the former TIF district non-taxable.)

By the time the city transferred its ownership of Sterett Hall to Palmetto Railways, the city's Cultural Arts Department had relocated to the newly opened City Hall.

Outraged at the loss of the theater, community members protested the loss by placing signs that said "Rest in Peace" atop caskets in the front lawn of the building. 

Not far from Sterett Hall, nonprofit Metanoia has plans to renovate the old Chicora Elementary School. The auditorium will be converted into a performing arts center. One wing will be used as studio space. Mayor Keith Summey has pledged his support for the project, which is expected to open in early 2020. 

"Sterett Hall was a real resource when it was there and it's unfortunate that it was torn down," Metanoia CEO Bill Stanfield said. 

The remainder of the Cultural Arts Department's $900,000 budget mostly goes to salaries and school arts enrichment programming. One of those programs, "kaleidoscope," is the product of a city partnership with the ten Charleston County elementary schools in North Charleston. 

It is unlikely the department will receive more funding in the next budget cycle, which will be approved by City Council in the coming months. 

Making it happen (copy)

North Charleston Cultural Arts director Kyle Lahm makes it her job to bring programs worth applauding to the city’s Children’s Theater Series at the Performing Arts Center. File/Staff.

But, like Lahm said, the department does a lot with a little. 

The city uses the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, the nearby Charleston Area Convention Center and North Charleston City Hall to house Arts Fest events.

For example, the 12th annual African American Fiber Art exhibit is on display on the first and second floors of North Charleston City Hall. On the third floor, a Honduran art exhibit titled "Honduras: Nuestro Arte, Nuestra Vida" (Our Art, Our Life) is on display. 

On Reynolds Avenue in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood, the city operates an old fire station as an arts venue. There is no funding for building projects so the department has slowly picked away at necessary renovations to the old station with money left over at the end of each budget cycle.

Last year, the department replaced the windows. The year prior, the fire station received a new $30,000 HVAC system. 

"The things that we need are also the things that the community needs," Lahm said. 

As part of the city's "pre-fest" events last weekend, local artists Heather Thorton and Sage Graham displayed their exhibit, "False Dichotomy," at the fire station. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

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