Crews will soon demolish the Whittemore Elementary School building that was ravaged by a fire last week, but Conway leaders hope to preserve part of the historic property, which once was the only school serving Black children in the city.
Council members voted Monday to raze the structure damaged by the fire. They also agreed they would seek to save a back building on the property. Some council members said the remaining building could potentially be converted into a community center.
“We should salvage what we can,” Conway City Councilwoman Amanda Butler said. “And if that back building was not in the best condition but better condition, I feel like we should take that into consideration.”
The property sits off U.S. 378 directly behind Whittemore Park Middle School. A fire broke out at the decades-old building around 12:45 a.m. on March 7.
There was no power in the building and the site has history of break-ins and vandalism, so many neighbors feared the blaze was set by someone.
City officials requested the assistance of the State Law Enforcement Division’s arson team, though the exact cause of the fire remains under investigation. Conway officials have said they requested SLED’s help because the city owns the building.
Conway Police Chief Dale Long said Monday that there is a person of interest in the case. The fire investigation has concluded but it could be two to three months before a report is ready, said Conway Fire Chief Le Hendrick.
Much of the conversation during Monday morning’s special meeting focused on safety and air quality. The building contains friable asbestos, and after the fire authorities conducted air quality tests in the surrounding neighborhood, including Whittemore Park Middle School, to ensure the safety of the community. Those results came back normal, city officials said.
“I would not like that at my front door,” Conway City Councilman Larry White said. “But at the same time, we have to recognize that this is something that we need to consider what it’s going to do to the community at large. … We need to do something with this building before it causes public health issues to the community.”
City administrator Adam Emrick said no one should be going into the building because it is unsafe. There are concerns that the fire damaged the building’s structure and walls or ceilings could fall.
“Before they would have to wear a full hazmat [suit] anyway,” he said. “Now I don’t know what you would wear.”
For years, the historic school has been the subject of contention between the city and former students of the school.
The city was given the property from Horry County Schools for $1 in 2018 with the intention of renovating it into a community center.
A report from 2019 found that the building - which had sat vacant since 2016 - is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In order to be listed on the historic register, properties must follow strict guidelines and receive approval for any renovation projects.
The building saw major damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. In January 2020 it was condemned due to “repeated damage by trespassers,” according to city records. Those records noted city that staff and police had repeatedly found evidence of criminal activity on the property.
According to city documents from 2020, to avoid additional hurdles through the State Historic Preservation Office, de-federalizing the project was an option, which the city has since done. This required the return of Community Development Block Grant funds of $17,291 that were previously incurred for a community center. The remaining funds of about $334,240 were moved to the Smith-Jones pool project, which is yet to be completed.
In 2021, the city held an hour-and-a-half-long community meeting at the property. Former students argued the property should be treated as a landmark like the town clock, courthouse and city hall. (Conway’s city hall is currently under renovations.)
But Emrick stressed that the cost of renovating the building would run between $14 million and $20 million - and former students accused city officials of having a lack of communication with residents about the site.
“The building is beyond repair in our opinion,” Emrick said at the time. “There is not a fiscal justification.”
At that time, city officials said asbestos abatement and monitoring would cost about $300,000.
In November, city leaders unsealed its first and only proposal for redeveloping the property from the Whittemore Racepath Historical Society. The $16 million proposal suggested building a residential complex, a community center and museum.
In December, city leaders had said time is of the essence to save the property. A law firm had been reviewing the group’s proposal to see if there was any liability if the city turned the property over to the society.
“That was in the works when the fire happened,” Emrick said.
Last week’s fire reduced the front of the main building to a pile of rubble.
On Monday, city leaders acknowledged that the nonprofit’s plans for the property must change, though they agreed to continue to work with the historical society to see what the group can do.
“It’s an absolute given,” Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said. “It certainly is in my heart.”
Cheryl Moore Adamson, president of the Whittemore Racepath Historical Society, said her group wanted to see what could be saved.
“If the building has to be torn down for safety and legal reasons, we understand that,” she said. “But we would like to inspect that first.”
Some council members asked if there was a way to better secure the remaining building including installing a security camera. Emrick said the lack of power on the site made that difficult, but he would find out what’s possible.
“We will do whatever we can,” he said.
City officials also agreed to save the bricks from the building being demolished, provided it’s safe to do so.
About the property
Whittemore Elementary School opened in 1954 as a South Carolina equalization school to educate African American students, according to the Whittemore Racepath Historical Society.
It was one of the first African American schools in Horry County, though the original structure was located on a different property.
Adamson, a former student at Whittemore and president of the WRHS, said in 2021 after the community meeting that she didn’t know until the meeting that the project had been de-federalized.
“I’m very happy that we had the meeting, but I’m very disturbed about [the] defederalization,” she said at the time. “No one ever informed us of that.”
“We don’t see that as an option,” she said of not renovating it.
The city noted in a 2020 council workshop document that subsequent “refederalization” would likely not be possible because of environmental review requirements.
“This would preclude the project from eligibility for other sources of federal funding,” the document states. “Specifically, federal guidelines declare that an action with physical impacts taken prior to ‘refederalization’ may result in a choice limiting action. However, this limitation will be placed only on the rehab of the physical structure and should not prevent future federal funding for programming at the site.”
City staff recommended the project be de-federalized and repaid with local funds, and a budget be created for in-house abatement, demolition and new construction.
Liollio Architecture previously quoted the city $325 to $450 per square foot for renovations. City documents have stated that demolition would cost about $162,500. It’s unclear if that figure has risen since the original estimate.
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