By Barney Blakeney
The non-profit Metanoia Community Development Corporation in North Charleston’s Chicora/Cherokee neighborhood is set to begin a project to renovate the former Chicora Elementary School on Success Street. CEO Rev. Bill Stanfield said the City of North Charleston which owns the former school property, recently approved the organization’s proposal to renovate the building and grounds into a center that perpetuates its use as a community resource.
Metanoia is located in the heart of the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood and focuses on finding strengths, or assets, in neighborhoods and using them as building blocks for the eventual success of some of our region’s most distressed communities. It received its 501c3 non-profit designation in 2004. Although Metanoia began primarily serving the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood, it recently expanded efforts to include all of southern North Charleston.
The Metanoia philosophy uses people (human assets) or places/organizations/things (physical assets), discovering and growing those assets to create sustainable change in neighborhoods by listening to the residents that actually live in them. The philosophy acknowledges residents are the real experts on neighborhoods. They are the ones with firsthand neighborhood knowledge who can identify areas of opportunity that are in need of targeted investment. Over the years, neighborhood residents have directed its work and guided the expanding scope of initiatives since Metanoia was begun in 2001.
Metanoia’s first year in the community was spent not by developing programs, but by listening to community members. It found one of the residents’ chief concerns was having a safe place for their children to go after school. This led to Metanoia’s first initiative: the Young Leaders, a leadership-based afterschool program for elementary school students. Stanfield described Metanoia’s approach as a holistic community development movement working to make the community better for generations to come. The initiative to renovate the former Chicora Elementary site is part of that approach, he said.
The city has given Metanoia 18 months to secure financing for the estimated $10 million renovation project Stanfield hopes will be ready for occupancy by 2019. After that Metanoia will lease the property from the city, which will retain ownership, 50 years at a total cost of $1.1 million. The 64,000 s.f. two-story structure eventually will house an early childhood education center for 80 students (60 slots will be dedicated to neighborhood children who will receive tuition scholarships), 11,000 s.f of space used as studios for artists, a 5,000 s.f. performing arts center and 23,000 s.f. of rented office space dedicated to nonprofit organizations. The development team includes Clemson University architect Ray Huff, tax credit consultants Richard Sidebottom and Pete Byford and attorney Robert Nettles among others.
Stanfield noted the ambitious project is based on models like the Middle Tyger Community Center in Lyman, S.C. and Batter Park in New York City, N.Y. It will provide numerous benefits that include an A+ rated early childhood education center, 83 temporary jobs due to construction, 112 permanent jobs, an accessible performing arts center that may replace the old Sterrette Hall at the former naval base, various resources through the Origin SC nonprofit organization which will be a primary tenant and restoration of one of the city’s most historic buildings.
I asked Stanfield how the long term project ultimately will impact Chicora/Cherokee’s predominantly Black residents in the rapidly transitioning community. He responded that the wave of gentrification will roll into the Chicora/Cherokee community as it has covered other communities in the Greater Charleston Metropolitan area. Metanoia’s holistic approach – training community leaders, creating affordable housing opportunities and economic development – is its answer, Stanfield said.
“As far as an overall goal – what we want people to be able to say years from now is that the work we are doing now led to a positive healthy mixed income community where lower income people had a stake and ownership within their own community and, even as investment moved through the neighborhood we were able to keep a significant amount of housing and opportunities in place that are geared to the current residents of the neighborhood. If we see the neighborhood become nicer, but the current residents who are here now aren’t here to enjoy that change, we have failed at our mission. The renovation of Old Chicora and the affordable housing we are building around the school will be essential to this effort,” he said.