By Susan Middaugh
“The Park should not be a grab bag when space is needed.” Steve Zoukis
Sullivan’s Island Residents who value J. Marshall Stith Park may wonder what is happening with recent proposals to use Park space for the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary School (SIES) and a new Town Hall. This was a major topic at the Sullivan’s Island Town Council meeting on October 16, 2012. Kaye Smith, the Park Foundation President, stated that the Foundation Board is unanimously behind protecting and maintaining this valued island resource that is “heavily utilized by those aged 18 months to 80 years.” Town Council members Madeleine McGee and Mary Jane Watson raised the possibility of a protective easement to preserve Parkland. This may be a very good idea, based on past experience (the current Fire Station is built on previous Park land) and the two current proposals.
A Little Park History. After the closure of Fort Moultrie in 1947, the military property was conveyed to the State of South Carolina under the War Liquidation Act. The State established the Township of Sullivan’s Island to provide needed public services and act as real estate agent for sale of the former military property to meet the need for post-war housing. Some military properties were retained for Township use, including the Town Hall (converted from two military warehouses) and the island’s most treasured recreational facilities: the Island Club and Fish Fry Shack, the Benke-Low Boat Landing, and the Park at “the Mound” (built as an ammunition bunker) on Middle Street.
The 16 acres surrounding (and including) the Mound has served as a Park from the 1960s, with volunteers providing labor and play equipment. According to Roy Williams, Sullivan’s Island resident historian, the tradition of sliding down the Mound on cardboard dates back at least to 1947 when he and his friends braved the “No Trespassing” signs and barbed wire fencing to engage in this activity. The iconic Park bandstand (c.1905) was originally built as the Fort Moultrie bandstand, sold off in the early 1950s for residential use (at 1462 Thompson Avenue) and moved to the Park in the 1980s to resume its bandstand role. Today, 8.5 acres of the original park area are set aside for Town uses, at present the Fire Station, the temporary Town Hall, the Water and Sewer Facility and the Cell Phone Tower. The remaining 7.5 acres form today’s Stith Park that is managed by the non-profit Park Foundation for multiple recreation uses.
SIES in the Park. A recent YouTube video by Vince Graham proposes building the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary School (SIES) in the Park, on the sports field between the Mound and the homes along Station 22. Mr. Graham suggests that architecturally duplicating Mount Pleasant Academy (MPA) in this location would allow a new 500-student SIES to be built quickly and at a lower cost. He further proposes converting the current SIES property (on Ion Avenue) to a new park plus residential lots that could be sold to generate as much as $25 million. These funds could be used by the Town to pay for a long wish list of items, including a new Town Hall. Cost conscious residents may well wonder whether there is, in fact, an opportunity here.
At the October 16, 2012, Town Council Meeting, Mike Perkis, Chair of the Ways and Means Committee and Mayor Pro Tem, provided a detailed Power Point presentation on the economics of constructing SIES in the Park versus its current location on Ion Avenue. Several facts stand out:
1) The cost of a school in the Park will be an estimated $6 million greater than the cost of SIES as planned on Ion Avenue for the following reasons. There will be an estimated delay of eighteen months to two years for redesign and re-permitting by eight different State agencies. This delay will add $2 million (five percent per year) due to inflation and increased personnel costs. A Park school will need to be elevated six to eight feet and will require a more expensive foundation, supported by deep pilings, that will add $3 – $3.5 million to the cost of construction. Infrastructure will cost an additional $1 million at the Park site. A major sewer trunk line that runs underneath the ball fields from Station 22 to the sewer plant will have to be relocated. Water, power and storm water drainage systems will all have to be added. This infrastructure is already in place at the current SIES location on Ion Avenue.
2) The Charleston County School District (CCSD) has already invested $1.5 million in the current SIES plans and site work, and construction has already been delayed by one year.
3) Claims that insurance costs will be lower for a school in the Park than a school on the beach are not accurate. Insurance for public buildings is purchased from the State of South Carolina at a cost that is based on square footage, regardless of flood zone location.
4) The Town has no need to sell the SIES property if it wants to raise $25 million for new Island amenities. The Town owns some 35 platted lots, already zoned for residential use, which can be sold if the residents so choose. These lots became Town property when the State of South Carolina converted the Township to the Town of Sullivan’s Island in 1974. This valuable endowment is seldom tapped, but can be considered to help finance a new Town Hall or other Island needs.
A New Town Hall in the Park. At a Community meeting held on September 11, 2012, Creech and Associates presented three options for a permanent Town Hall and Police Department:
1) Rehabilitation of the old Town Hall at 1610 Middle Street
2) Adaptive Re-use of 1714 Middle Street (the historic Fort Moultrie Post Exchange, now a private home)
3) Construction of a new Town Hall on town-owned property near the Fire Station.
The consultants’ first choice of location for new construction was Stith Park, in the area where the Bandstand and many large shade trees are currently located. The consultants also presented footprints for several alternative sites on the 8.5 acres adjacent to the Park where other Town facilities are located, including the temporary Town Hall. Fortunately, there is little support on Town Council for a Town Hall in the Park, and there are many possibilities for a creative architect to design a new Town Hall on the adjacent land if Town Council decides on new construction.
Bullets Dodged: For the time being, it looks as if Stith Park has dodged two bullets. On October 19, 2012, the Charleston County School Board voted seven to two to sign a contract to begin construction of SIES at the current Ion Avenue school site. And for now, Town Council does not support locating a new Town Hall in Stith Park. These recent threats, however, have given us a “heads-up” and two excellent reasons to pursue preservation of Stith Park through a protective covenant.