Originally created 04/02/04

Groups compete for funds



AIKEN - Leslie Pierce sat idle on the first floor of the Aiken County Historical Museum on Thursday as her sister, Virginia, browsed second-floor displays.

Leslie, who uses a wheelchair, couldn't access second-story exhibits because the museum doesn't have an elevator.

"I'm happy to see what I can see," the Columbia resident said cheerfully. "I make her describe everything."

The Aiken County Historic Commission, which oversees the county-owned museum, has requested funding from the proposed extension of the 1-cent sales tax to pay for an elevator, which would make the former Winter Colony residence fully accessible, and a host of repairs.

"There's no regular system of maintenance," commission Chairman Owen Clary said. "It's taken care of when it falls apart."

In its quest for money from the sales tax, the county museum must compete with a list of requests from the private sector, including bids to build two new museums.

One group is asking the county for $500,000 to build a black history museum and cultural center. A second is asking for more than $200,000 to build a replica of Aiken's original train depot from the 19th century. The same groups, which are putting up some of their own money, also are asking the city of Aiken for contributions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The requests are forcing officials and the residents committee, which will decide which projects will get funded with the tax, to balance private interests with what will best serve residents of Aiken County.

"Most of the money should go for things that are owned by the city, the county, or the roads and infrastructure improvements," Aiken City Councilman Pat Cunning said.

Representatives of the private sector proposals say the museums will benefit the entire community and could generate tourism revenue. If that's the case, Mr. Cunning said, the requests might be better funded with the city's hospitality tax that's applied to overnight guests at hotels.

A second dilemma for those creating the sales tax wish list is factoring in how popular the museums will be with voters, who must approve the tax referendum in November. The all-or-nothing setup of the tax means voters approve either every project or none.

There hasn't been significant opposition to the black history museum or the railroad depot proposal. City Councilman Dick Smith, however, said that the projects should be privately funded and that the black museum/cultural center idea was divisive.

"I really don't believe the city or the county should be funding a project such as this is, which is really contrary to the whole idea of integrating society," he said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895

or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.