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Prince George: School wants to buy and USC is ready to sell

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“Dear Mr. Meekins,

“I think that if we had that property we could make education better for the kids. I’m not just saying that because it’s my school we’re talking about, but it’s your choice. You make the right choice.”

“Dear Mr. Meekins,

“Please take the ofer! We rily need are own school.”

Those letters and 142 others will go to Russ Meekins, head of the USC Development Foundation, next week along with a revised offer from the Coastal Montessori Charter School for property the foundation owns at Prince George.

The foundation is no stranger to heartfelt pleas. “We’ve experienced that before,” Meekins said. “I don’t have the authority to accept it or decline it.”

The charter school wants to buy 10 acres on the west side of Highway 17 for a permanent facility. It opened in August with a two-year lease on a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School.

The foundation rejected the school’s first offer. Although the amount has not been disclosed, charter board members say it was $400,000 below what the foundation wanted.

“I hope we can work it out,” Meekins said. “I think they would be a perfect owner for that property.”

The University of South Carolina Development Foundation acquired over 1,200 acres from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. as part of a deal with the developers of the Prince George tract. Most of the property is east of the highway. The school wants to build at Prince George to be able to attract more minority students from the Georgetown area. It has approval for the site from the U.S. Justice Department, which must approve all public school construction under the terms of court-ordered desegregation that dates to the 1970s.

The foundation owns 131 acres on the west side of the highway. Because of wetlands and endangered species habitat only 10 acres are buildable. There are also restrictions on the property that limit its use to educational purposes.

The charter school board has been in talks with the foundation for about a year. The Justice Department and members of the Georgetown County Board of Education, which sponsors Coastal Montessori, urged the school to move to Georgetown. But most of the families who organized the school had children at the private Pawleys Island Montessori School.

Charter schools receive public funds, but they have their own boards and are exempt from some state regulations. Coastal Montessori has applied for a $5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency to buy the land and build the school at Prince George.

The foundation will sell the 131 acres for the price of the 10 acres that can be built on, Meekins said. The property was appraised last year to “get a more realistic value” after the collapse of the national real estate bubble, he said.

“We’d like to give it to them, but we have a fiduciary duty,” Meekins said. “Sometimes it causes us a moral dilemma.”

The FDIC got the property when it took over the bank that financed the sale of the property to investors in the late 1980s. It sold the property to the foundation, which received the money from a new development group, for $10.5 million in 1994.

The foundation also received two oceanfront lots in the Prince George development and the sale of those lots provided funds to maintain the rest of its property, Meekins said.

The property east of Highway 17 isn’t restricted to education. The foundation would like to sell it, but Meekins said the market isn’t right for the sort of low-impact development it wants to see on the property, which has about 500 buildable acres.

“We wouldn’t want to put up high-rise condos,” he said.

At one time the university had plans to create an environmental education center at Prince George. But with the Baruch Marine Lab at Hobcaw, USC decided it didn’t need the land. As the state has cut appropriations for higher education, it needs the money, Meekins said.

So the sale to the charter school would be a start.

“We really want to sell it to them,” Meekins said. “At a fair price to them, and to us.”

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