The gown is coming to town.
Myrtle Beach city leaders are looking to expand their partnership with Coastal Carolina University to include a charter/laboratory school in an old church and a spot for graduate students in the city-owned library, leaving the door open for establishing a new CCU Myrtle Beach campus.
The city council voted Tuesday to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two entities. The document is not legally binding. It is an agreement to assist in the development and implementation of the project. Basically, officials said, the MOU provides the ability to explore the proposal.
Mayor Brenda Bethune has described the deal as a “win-win” for the city and university that will spark downtown revitalization while giving Coastal a larger footprint on the Grand Strand.
“The goal is not to just revitalize one small area, but to help spread that to other areas,” she said of the plans for the five-acre tract within sight of the ocean. “We don’t want it to stop here.”
Coastal Carolina President David DeCenzo said the university understands its role in the community, adding it is vital to train the next generation of teachers and allow them to take what they’ve learned and get hands-on experience while honing their craft.
“To be part of the revitalization of Myrtle Beach is something that not only are excited about but we are committed to,” he said.
The agreement could mean the historic First Presbyterian Church off Kings Highway, neighboring Chapin Memorial Library and Chapin Park will be filled with staff and students. City leaders said Myrtle Beach would follow the same path as other cities in partnering with universities that have seen bustling downtowns year round. It could lead to “businesses starting to pop up” near the area, Bethune said.
The deal could mean there will be 179 jobs created in the construction phase with $2.6 million in state and local tax revenue, according to a study the city commissioned from James Lima Planning and Development consultants. The Lima report also states the recurring impact is 49 jobs on the campus that could spin off into 39 other jobs as businesses nearby open or expand, resulting in $300,000 annually in state and local tax revenue.
The city hopes the plans also bring more activity downtown during less busy times of the year.
The proposal is the second step in the partnership that began with CCU joining the city in developing a performing arts center in the Arts and Innovation District, formerly referred to as the Superblock. Construction on the arts center is expected to begin next year with a theater opening in 2022. The buildings are located at 807, 809 and 811 on Main Street. It is to be used as a public space and by college theater students to hone their craft.
The city is charging CCU $95,000 in rent annually after five years for the performing arts center first step in the partnership.
The next-step-new-proposal calls for a graduate school of education at Chapin Memorial Library and developing the K-8 charter school, which would be located in the former church at 1300 North Kings Highway.
The city and university will also explore options for a possible future campus in Myrtle Beach.
“It’s our hope that with an anchor in the theater to the south and this anchor to the north that we can begin to develop a Myrtle Beach CCU campus,” Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen said. “We really think this is the marriage between the need that Coastal Carolina University has and the opportunity the city has to renovate and redevelop its downtown and to use some of the undervalued real estate there for campus purposes.”
Pedersen said the city would maintain ownership of the library building and neighboring Chapin Park but would be responsible for about $1 million in infrastructure upgrades around the library with $2.5 million budgeted for the building renovations to house the graduate student classes and administrative offices in the library building for the Spadoni College of Education.
He expects the CCU need to move into the library building to outpace the proposed construction of a new library downtown so the library would be temporarily relocated. The downtown master plan the city council adopted calls for the library to move to city-owned property just off Oak Street north of the Myrtle Beach Train Depot.
While city leaders praised the deal, councilwoman Jackie Hatley said she was concerned about displacement of the library and its staff.
“I don’t want them to get lost,” she said.
John Hobson, chair of the Chapin Memorial Library board, said the board was not approached about the city and university’s plans and urged the council to postpone the vote until they received advice from the group.
Pedersen said the $1 million infrastructure upgrades on the library include fencing around Chapin Park so students from the charter school could use the area as playground, closing 14th Avenue North from Kings Highway to Chester Street, closing 13th Avenue North from Chester Street to Withers Drive for parking and constructing a lane for drop offs and pickups on Chester Street.
Pedersen added the park would be open to all after school hours, on weekends and in the summer months. The school will make sure Chapin Park is clean at the end of each school day.
The plans also include Coastal leasing the library building for $1 a year for at least 30 years.
The city recently spent more than $222,000 to re-roof the library, which is the only city-owned library in the state. The building, located at 400 14th Ave. North, was opened in 1949 and has been expanded four times.
In October, Coastal’s board approved a memorandum of understanding with the city to develop the K-8 lab school in the downtown, stating it would serve as an “incubator for new ideas” while providing opportunities for teaching internships.
Ed Jadallah, dean of CCU’s Spadoni College of Education, said the university partners with school districts in Horry and Georgetown counties and many graduates stay in the area to teach.
The charter school would adhere to the state law from 1996 that keeps the school tuition-free and operating as a public school, albeit outside of the Horry County Schools oversight. The agreement states there would be 20-40 students in each grade and the students would be chosen through a lottery system with preference given to siblings of students, returning students and children of school employees.
Pedersen said the school would not be a “private school for privileged children.”
The city manager added the school will likely start as a K-4 and then expand to K-8 offering after-school programs and extracurricular activities.
The deal states the school would be governed by a board and the city would not be involved the school’s operation. It also states the city is not responsible for the upkeep of the building once it has been renovated.
Pedersen echoed Bethune’s equation of students plus beach yields revitalization.
“We think the university is certainly one of the strongest brands in the Grand Strand and we're honored to have a chance to partner with Coastal Carolina University,” he said.
He said it could mean some of the underperforming “mom and pop” hotels may be renovated to answer the need for student housing in addition to the other types of businesses that typically dot campuses around the country.
And the win-win, Pedersen said, goes for CCU’s conundrum when it comes to expansion. He said there’s a possibility Coastal may move all of the graduate programs to a Myrtle Beach campus, leaving space at the Conway campus for more undergraduates. And a Myrtle Beach campus should help with recruiting graduate students.
“If you’ve got a graduate student that’s trying to make up their mind,” he laughed, “are they going to Coastal going to class and living two blocks from the beach or are they going to central Iowa?”
The funding of the church building, however, is more complicated than the $1 annual lease for the library building. Funding for upfitting the church building is divided into a best-case scenario and worst-case scenario by Pedersen.
The building and adjacent parking will be purchased by a nonprofit organization for the purpose of a charter school, he said.
Tory Mackey, the executive director of the Chapin Foundation, said last week the foundation has committed to purchasing in the church property but the deal is not final.
“We’re interested in downtown revitalization,” she said. “This is a good way to get this project moving and this a cornerstone piece of it.”
The foundation is a grant making body with five areas of focus that include churches, church sponsored nonprofits, public libraries, public healthcare providers and the YMCA.
With the foundation’s commitment to buy the church building, which was vacated by the church when it moved to the new campus off Grissom Parkway, Pedersen said last week the project could move forward if approved by the city council and Coastal.
He and Bethune said the school would serve as an anchor that would spawn development such as retail shops, restaurants and affordable housing.
“I’m excited about the possibilities. I think we need the vibrancy to help invigorate the downtown,” councilman Gregg Smith said. “The city has to be a partner. We can’t do it on our own. I think we will all win.”
Last week, the newest member of city council, John Krajc, tempered his support and said he wants a partnership with CCU but wanted to learn more at the Tuesday meeting.
At that meeting, he said, “I fully support this project.”
Other council members shared the same sentiment.
“I think this is going to change things in a big way if we can make this happen,” councilman Mike Chestnut said.
According to Pedersen, the foundation has committed $2.8 million to purchase the property and they have another $1.5 million in private donations to add to the pot for upfitting. The total cost of the project, including money from the foundation and private donations, is $9.3 million.
The best-case scenario, Pedersen explained on Thursday, is the building would qualify for historic tax credits along with the abandoned building tax credits leaving the city responsible for $3.4 million. The worst-case scenario is without the historic tax credits leaving the city responsible for $3.9 million.
He cautioned since the plans for the church building have not been drawn, he’s not sure if the historic tax credits would apply.
Additionally, the funding on both sides of the scenario aisle call for the city to apply about $3.5 million from the loan pool used by the former Downtown Redevelopment Corporation (DRC). The worst-case scenario calls for the city to add another $427,000 from the DRC closeout funds.
Pedersen said the city’s debt service payment would be between $262,000 and $300,000.
The defunct DRC was a nonprofit arm of the city that was used to buy property and promote its designated district between 16th Avenue North and 6th Avenue South. It was phased out at the end of 2019 as the city absorbed the two staff members creating the Downtown Development Office and the objective of ensuring the downtown master plan is executed. The council Tuesday approved a motion authorizing the city to continue working with Benchmark Planning as consultants for the implementation of the downtown master plan.
The master plan was adopted by the city in March 2019 and it calls for sweeping changes along the Kings Highway business corridor, green spaces throughout the city, pedestrian-friendly paths, increased public safety and public-private partnerships to anchor downtown redevelopment.
As for the debt payments on the project, Pedersen looks back to the revenue from the old DRC.
He said the city generated about $1.7 million annually from on-street parking and about $95,000 annually from hybrid parking to leases. The city paid Lanier about $909,000 annually as a management fee and plans on the new downtown development office to cost about $300,000 leaving about $620,000 in revenue for the city. He added there is about $1.9 million left in the DRC fund balance. That amount will decrease by more than $1 million to pay for the theater buildings and $366,000 for parking utility fund equity.
With all the parking lot money and DRC money subtracted, it leaves the city a one-time transfer of about $518,000.
So, Pedersen said, the city could take the $518,000 added to the annual parking revenue of $620,000 and $652,000 from the property sales to the brewery and construction office buildings in the Arts and Innovation District giving the city another $1.79 million in revenue.
That $1.79 million could be spent on a recurring $300,000 to fund the CCU project in the worst case scenario, another $500,000 for one year to fund an ambassador program for the Arts and Innovation District and a one-time cost of $200,000 to make Nance Plaza an event-type gathering space.
“It’s exciting. It benefits all of us,” Bethune said of the charter school and the graduate program for the Spadoni College of Education.
Bethune, whose family name is Spadoni, added her parents had donated money to the university decades ago so the college was named in their honor. There is no connection to her or the city because of the name, she said.
“I’m not getting anything out of this at all,” she said.
Lauren Clever, director of the city’s Downtown Development Office and former executive director of the DRC, said the deal aligns with what is outlined in the city’s master plan and can boost morale and public perception.
“This can promote our area not just as a tourist destination but as a place where up and coming talent can earn an education at a top notch university where they can live and build a bright future,” she said.
Clever added the efforts could attract private investment. More feet on the street, she said, improves public safety.
She said higher education has served as anchors in different downtowns in the Southeast including College of Charleston and University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Officials said the MOU is a precursor to binding legal documents such as leases and facility management agreements. It is preliminary to the contractual relationships, with the final project being contingent upon agreement as to the legally binding documents.
Reporter Katie Powell contributed to the story.