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Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley wants remaining $11 million this year from state for African American museum

March 10, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA — Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley says he’s seeking the remaining $11 million this year — out of the $25 million targeted — from the S.C. Statehouse to help build the International African American Museum in Charleston.

But the lump sum move could be a tall sell.

With the state’s budget stressed by ongoing costs related to Hurricane Matthew, and the Legislature’s plan to fix the state’s pension system expected to be costly, money for other projects is expected to be tight once again in the coming budget year.

Riley, who was in the Statehouse this week talking up the project, said he hopes to confer the importance of the museum on allies and budget drafters to get the amount fully funded.

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“I think this is such an asset for South Carolina,” Riley said Thursday.

The $75 million International African American Museum is planned for the Charleston Waterfront near Gadsden’s Wharf. It is projected to be funded equally by the city and county, $25 million; the state $25 million; and the rest through private funds.

The Legislature already has supplied $14 million, while the local commitment has been made. Riley says about $6 million in private money has been secured with other avenues being pursued.

The proposed 40,000-square-foot museum is meant to tell the story that began with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and continues through African-American contributions in the 21st century. It is tentatively set to open in the fall of 2019.

It received $4 million from state lawmakers last year, but no one in the Statehouse has guaranteed any more money will come through.

Despite the Statehouse’s money woes, Riley believes it’s still early in the budgeting process and is optimistic state funding could come through.

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, confirmed that the proposed House budget, as it stands, would not send any additional money to the project, which would be located on the banks of the Cooper River.

“There are more asks, or requests, than can be funded, obviously,” said Simrill, the House Ways and Means Committee vice chair.

Simrill emphasized that roughly $82 million of the general revenue fund this year would go toward matching funds needed to cover the cost of Hurricane Matthew. Another $165 million, he said, needs to be put toward the ailing state pension fund, which lawmakers moved to fix this session.

Other Republican lawmakers, too, recognized the tight constraints that the budget is under this year, and argued that spending more on the museum wasn’t the highest priority.

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Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said it was hard for him to support spending more money on a museum that isn’t owned by the state when state universities and other agencies are seeking that funding, too.

“The merits are there for the museum, but it shouldn’t be a state responsibility,” said Herbkersman, who met with former mayor Riley Wednesday. “It never started out as a state issue, and we’ve already put $14 million into it.”

Rep. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, said he didn’t have a problem supporting the $4 million influx of money that the state put up last year. He saw it as “seed money” for an economic investment that can help attract tourists to Charleston and the Palmetto State.

But when other needs have to be addressed by the state government, Pitts said lawmakers need to take a hard look at whether spending money on a museum is the best choice.

“The question for me is how much, and when do you stop?” Pitts said.

Still, some lawmakers want to see the state continue to play a role in financing the highly anticipated museum. Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Lake City, said he would expect members of the Legislative Black Caucus and other lawmakers from the Charleston region to push for additional money next week.

“It’s going to be the first museum in the country dedicated to slavery, and it’s going to be a huge draw to the Charleston market,” McKnight said. “And we all know that tourism is one of the life-bloods of South Carolina.”

“To me, as an African American, I have an interest in it,” McKnight said. “But this isn’t just some niche, pet project. This is something that has national and international ramifications. So we should fund it. To me, it’s not a waste.”

Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.