Lack of historic knowledge, infrastructure among obstacles facing Mitchelville Preservation Project

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Lack of historic knowledge, infrastructure among obstacles facing Mitchelville Preservation Project

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
843-706-8169
Published Tuesday, February 8, 2011   |  541 Words  |  

The Mitchelville Preservation Project held the first of a two-day strategic planning session Tuesday on development of a planned park commemorating the nation's first freedmen's village.

Board members discussed ways to leverage political support, community engagement and "prime" location to overcome the need for funding in a down economy against competing community needs, including finding a title sponsor for the Heritage golf tournament.

More than 30 people from the nonprofit's board of directors and advisors gathered at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to discuss goals and objectives for moving forward.

"The implications of this project are enormous," said Susan Thomas, vice president of the chamber's visitor and convention bureau. "This is a site important to the history of the United States -- a beacon of freedom. "

At the same time, need for staff and lack of knowledge of Mitchelville's historical significance beyond Hilton Head and South Carolina present large obstacles.

"Most people think Hilton Head was founded in the 1950s by (Sea Pines founder) Charles Fraser," said board member Heather Rath.

Infrastructure is also an issue.

"There are unpaved road around Mitchelville. We have to begin to put in the necessary infrastructure so people will feel comfortable going in to necessary areas," said David White, an advisor to the board.

Chairman Thomas Barnwell, Jr. said such frank discussion is needed to lay out a workable plan for seeing the project to fruition, and is confident many of the issues will be addressed.

The Hilton Head Island Town Council agreed in September to lease 15 acres of town-owned land at Fish Haul Creek Park to develop the Mitchelville Project, contingent on a plan showing the preservation group's financial ability to build and maintain it. The group hopes to lease the park for $1 a year for 99 years, an arrangement similar to one between the town and the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.

Town Council also awarded the preservation group $35,000 in bed tax money to help defray start-up costs. The group has established a beginning budget of $89,000 for salaries, consultant fees, rent, office operations, advertising, training and maintaining a new website.

Another estimated $60,000 to $80,000 is needed to complete an ecological and archeological survey. Board members said they hope to begin that process within the next two months.

"That is a key first step we need to accomplish before anything else can happen; before we can move forward with architectural and site plans," said board member Ezra Callahan. "That is going to require fundraising. We are moving ahead, but to continue that momentum, we need financial support."

The group has more than $50,000, including a grant of $10,000 from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, with a promise of $27,000 more over three years at a rate of $9,000 a year, if matched.

Cost to develop the first phase of the park on town-owned land is estimated at $4.5 million. Construction would hopefully start in June 2012 and last a year, Callahan said.

Mitchelville was created for freed slaves in 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from Hilton Head Island.