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Historic downtown Bethel AME waits – and waits – for money to bring new life

A nearly century-old downtown landmark representing Columbia’s African-American culture and history awaits new life as a museum and performing arts center.

But a lack of money has kept restoration of the historic Bethel AME Church on hold for more than a decade. More than $1 million in public money from the city and Richland County has gone toward the project, though the building still stands unused.

The nonprofit Renaissance Foundation, which is devoted to promoting arts and culture in the community and to restoring the church, is renewing its long-stalled fundraising efforts. The foundation lacks around $3 million to fund the Bethel project, said former Mayor Bob Coble, who is among new leadership joining the foundation’s board.

“We need to push and get the project completed,” Coble said. “It’s hard to raise money, and I think that’s just a fact.”

Built in 1921 and designed by the nation’s first African-American licensed architect, John Lankford, the Bethel AME church has sat vacant at Sumter and Taylor streets since 1995, when the congregation relocated to Woodrow Street in the Shandon neighborhood.

It was a gathering place for civil rights activity and black community events. “There’s a lot of history packed into that facility, and a lot of sacrifices were made in order for that structure to be built,” said the Rev. Caesar Richburg, pastor of Bethel AME for the past six months.

The vision for restoring the church is to make it a civil rights museum, art gallery and 500-600-seat performance hall. Supporters believe it will be a community asset, a tourist draw and an economic development engine.

“This building reminds me of a canvas that you can just take and paint a beautiful picture,” said Mary Skinner-Jones, director of the Renaissance Foundation since 2004 and a member of Bethel AME. “I think there’s a need for the art community to have a place that they can perform where they can actually fill the house. It’s important to local artists that we have that.”

Saving and repurposing the building is important, too, she said, “to be able to tell the story to future generations, to be able to preserve and not tear down.”

Some structural work was done on the building several years ago, including replacing the roof, removing asbestos and restoring the stained-glass windows. Those windows will be reinstalled whenever the full renovation of the building is complete, Skinner-Jones said.

Coble, who has not yet attended his first board meeting, was not sure how much money the foundation has raised over the years for the project, and Skinner-Jones could not provide a figure when asked.

In 2013, The State reported the foundation had raised more than $2.7 million since 2004, most of it from city and county hospitality tax funding. About $1 million had come from the county at the time. In 2015, the county gave $100,000 to the foundation, a county spokeswoman said.

The city has given several hundred thousand dollars to the Renaissance Foundation over the years. Exact amounts given in total by the city and county were not immediately available Friday.

Three years ago, City Council committed to give $75,000 a year for multiple years to the foundation – if the foundation met conditions that included securing tax credits for the renovation. But those conditions have not been met, and that money has not been disbursed to the foundation.

Under new guidance on its board, the Renaissance Foundation will be seeking grants, public and private funding and tax credits to help with the project costs, Coble said. In a few weeks, it plans to launch a new fundraising campaign, Skinner-Jones said.

In the meantime, the building stands soundly – if unkempt – and will continue waiting to be remade. Richburg, the pastor, said the church is feeling excitement, not anxiousness or impatience, at seeing the project make a new push toward completion.

“Yes, it’s taken a little longer than we’ve anticipated. I think all would say that,” Richburg said. “Nevertheless, there is healthy and renewed traction toward completion of the project.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

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