Heritage Corridor Takes Steps After State Audit

August 26, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveSix months after state auditors called for more efficient administration of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, changes have been made at the nonprofit, according to executive director Michelle McCollum.

A review by the Legislative Audit Council, released in February, identified a number of ways to improve efficiency within the corridor, created in 1996 to promote heritage tourism and economic redevelopment in a 17-county region, which includes some of the poorest counties in the state.

Those recommendations included giving complete management to either the heritage corridor board or to S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, both of which were then overseeing the entity; requiring the heritage corridor to eliminate all state funding; and implementing an improved study to measure the corridor’s effectiveness in spurring redevelopment and attracting visitors.

Since then, the heritage corridor has been placed under the management of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. State funding, McCollum said, hasn’t been an issue in recent years because the heritage corridor hasn’t gotten any in at least six years.

As for an improved study to measure the corridor’s effectiveness, McCollum says a study was done before the audit, but it wasn’t used by the Legislative Audit Council.

The heritage corridor stretches 240 miles along the western edge of the state, from the mountains of Oconee County to the Atlantic Ocean.

Since 1997, the corridor has received $6.3 million in local and private funding, $8.8 million in federal funding and $3.7 million in state funding, McCollum said.

The corridor has received $905,800 in federal funding for this fiscal year, which began July 1. About $300,000 annually goes to grants for local projects related to the corridor. That money goes to match local funds raised for projects deemed worthwhile.

In recent years, projects have included:

  • Restoration of the Aiken railroad passenger depot ($20,000);
  • The creation of the Museum of the Cherokee in South Carolina ($17,500); and
  • Renovation of the Birchwood Arts and Folklife Center Facility in Pickens County ($20,000).

Other projects seem more questionable, however. Among them:

  • The Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail ($7,850), a collection of more than 30 painted quilt panels hung outside homes and businesses in Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties;
  • The refurbishing of restrooms in the Abbeville Opera House ($20,000); and
  • A $20,000 grant made in 2007 and listed as having gone to the “Wagener 24 Hour Museum.”

Wagener is a community of fewer than 1,000 residents in eastern Aiken County. According to information on the town’s website, the Wagener Museum isn’t open 24 hours a week, never mind 24 hours a day. Museum hours are listed as Thursday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday by appointment only.

The museum, like many in small towns, features artifacts and documents dating back to pre-Colonial days. And no matter the quality of the displays, justifying the taxpayer tab might be difficult.

The museum averages 10 to 15 visitors a month, according to Cynthia Hardy, a Wagener resident active with the museum.

However, the corridor is having a more noticeable impact in communities such as Edgefield and Walhalla, where funding for several projects has created a nucleus that has increased tourism and attracted small businesses, McCollum said.

“In Walhalla they’re getting quite a bit of visitation as a result of the projects that have been funded through the heritage corridor, and it’s really uplifted the community and spurred quite a bit of activity,” she said. “And the same thing has gone on in Edgefield.”

One of the goals of the program is to encourage communities to take ownership of projects once the heritage corridor project is completed, McCollum added.

Taxpayers who want to learn more about a recent study titled, “Development and Economic Impact Study of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor: A Roadmap for Economic Development” and completed last year by the USC-Clemson Research Partnership, can go online to request a copy.

But they’ll have to pay $25 for a full copy. The fee helps offset printing costs and staff time, according to McCollum.

However, residents can access an executive summary of the report on the heritage corridor’s website. It contains “all the important numbers,” McCollum said.

One point identified in the state audit was that performance measures put forth in the earlier corridor study did not accurately assess the economic impact the corridor had within its region.

The study results at first glance appear impressive, as the report stated that visitors to the “region annually generate $624 million in direct economic impact.”

However, the LAC pointed out that the study did not measure the economic impact of corridor-related activities on tourism.

Of the $624 million in direct economic impact, there is no breakdown as to how much can be attributed to the heritage corridor’s programs, according to the LAC report. In addition, the study did not take into account the fact that the program now consists of 17 counties.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.