A fire gutted the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce building early Saturday morning.
The cause of the fire and where it started is being investigated. Firefighters responded to the blaze about 1:40 a.m. Saturday and worked about two hours to control it, Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Chief Reece Bertholf said.
Federal, state and local investigators were on the scene Saturday.
The $2.2 million building at Duke and Bladen streets in downtown Beaufort was on schedule to be completed in December, with a grand opening planned for January. The building will include a commercial kitchen for job training, art gallery and office space for entrepreneurs.
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The project has been the target of vandalism and intense controversy. Before the building broke ground, someone spray painted “Racist” in red letters on the sign.
Beaufort County Black Chamber CEO and president Larry Holman received a call about the fire at 4 a.m. and arrived to find the building engulfed in flames. He said plans for the new facility would move forward, no matter the cause of the fire.
But the fire could set the project back at least a year, he said.
“The only thing I could think about is, ‘Who? Who did it? Why? Why?’” Holman said. “This was something that was bringing the community back together and now we have a building here that is no good to anybody at this point.”
Security cameras from the current Chamber building across the street and another nearby business are pointed toward the new building, Holman said.
The Rev. Kenneth Hodges, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street, got a call about 7:30 a.m. and took pictures of the aftermath Saturday morning. He said he hoped the fire was not the result of foul play.
“When you’re building a new building, there can be electrical and you don’t know what,” Hodges said.
A contractor was ready to install new flooring on the third floor Saturday, Holman said. Site work was being done for a new road behind the building.
Firefighters were still spraying possible hot spots into early afternoon Saturday.
Nearby resident Naomi Crocket watched the fire from her nearby porch and worried other buildings would burn as embers floated down Bladen Street. She snapped a photo of the orange glow.
“It was even bigger than that,” she said, looking at the photo on her phone. “It was unbelievable.”
Investigators from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene Saturday. More investigators from the agency are expected.
State and local investigators will also work to determine the cause of the fire and where it started, Bertholf said.
The new Chamber building was financed through a federal rural development loan. The Beaufort County Black Chamber’s current home is a brick building on the same block as the new structure.
The organization works with small businesses, offers small loan programs, housing counseling and works with people to navigate the Affordable Care Act.
Holman said it is too early to say how rebuilding will work, but that it will happen.
“We’re not going to let this stop us,” Holman said. “I’m hoping the community will come together and look at this as something now that we have to go forward with.”