CHARLESTON, SC — Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s push to build an International African American Museum near the city’s waterfront has hit a severe cash roadblock after the Legislature fell far short in providing the millions of dollars the mayor requested.
Riley asked for $12.5 million in this year’s state budget, with another $12.5 million to come next year.
Budget drafters in the House of Representatives allocated only $250,000.
The shortfall is threatening the project’s future and is enough of a concern that Riley sought time with Gov. Nikki Haley last week to stress what he sees as the project’s statewide importance.
“She was listening; we had a very nice meeting,” Riley said in describing their sit-down.
Haley’s communications director, Doug Mayer, issued a statement Tuesday saying the governor received Riley’s request as information.
“The governor appreciates Mayor Riley taking the time to meet on this issue, enjoyed the discussion, and will review the information that the mayor left regarding the project,” he said.
Without a significant financial commitment from the Legislature, Riley said the museum’s future would be in doubt, since the full $75 million price tag can’t be met locally. “It cannot be built without $25 million from the state,” he said.
In Riley’s favor is that the $250,000 in the House’s version of the budget was entered as a “line item,” meaning it is a separate, itemized appropriation that the House wants. Once on the Senate side, budget writers there could increase the amount in their version, if they see fit.
Charleston’s version of an African-American-focused museum has been envisioned for some time but has been slowed by fundraising efforts. Riley sought to kick-start the push last fall, saying the museum will tell the stories of black influence in America through slavery, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the civil rights era and beyond.
As envisioned, the 42,300-square-foot building would go on land across from the S.C. Aquarium that’s adjacent to the parking garage that supports the various tourist sites on the Cooper River.
City Council backs the idea and agreed to give $12.5 million for the project, with another $12.5 million coming from Charleston County Council. About $25 million would be raised privately, with completion still dependent on $25 million from the state.
Riley has said Charleston has a responsibility to accurately tell the story of black migration to America, since records indicate that 40 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America entered through the port of Charleston.
He contends that the museum would be a tourism draw that would bring up to $30 million annually to the local economy, and millions more to the state.
“The economic benefit to the state is great,” he said. The timetable forecasts the museum opening in 2018.
The mayor added that he is optimistic he could get the allocation increased when the Senate Finance Committee starts its budgetary review in the next few weeks.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he was disappointed to see only $250,000 allocated toward the project, saying this as an opportunity for the African-American story to be presented “in a way that is unlikely to be told in other parts of the country.”
Kimpson said he expects to be able to tap into the expected state surplus to help the museum, adding he doesn’t believe the $25 million request over two years is a lot money considering the amount that has already been allocated on a local level.
House members of the Legislative Black Caucus said Tuesday they hope Riley can do better with the Senate.
“The African-American museum as proposed by Mayor Riley is something I see as icing on the cake for the tourism mecca Charleston already is,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. She added, “$250,000 isn’t even a drop in the bucket.”
Rep. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, said he wasn’t sure why only $250,000 was allocated. “Maybe the General Assembly is not appreciating the impact of this museum,” he said.
Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, who chairs the subcommittee that approved the $250,000, said Riley made a “compelling case,” and that African-American history is an integral part of South Carolina history. But the issue was one of dollars.
Merrill added that he thought it was an odd case that Charleston is trying to get state support to build a black history museum at the same time that “the NAACP insists on this silly little boycott” – a reference to the group’s economic and tourism boycott of the state over the Confederate battle flag being flown on Statehouse grounds.
“We have better race relations than most places,” Merrill said.