Louis Whitesides is VP for SCSU's land grant programs | Credit: Herb Frazier

A new regional education center is expected to open in early 2022 in Charleston’s East Side neighborhood, after a decade of planning and red tape, to help school children and adults live better and connect with the latest technology.

On a tiny parcel of donated government land at Lee and America streets, S.C. State University (SCSU) has built a $5.3 million coastal education and research center to serve Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and Georgetown counties. The center is part of SCSU’s federally funded 1890 Extension and Research program.

“We want this to be a launching pad for our programs,” said Louis Whitesides, SCSU’s vice president and director of land grant programs. “We take the expertise in the university to the community. This building is going to give us more roots in the Charleston area.”

For about three decades, SCSU has offered 4-H programs and science programs to students at the Sanders-Clyde Elementary and Burke High schools and Charleston Development Academy and other schools in Dorchester, Berkeley and Georgetown counties. With the new building, those programs will continue and others will be added to include short-term non-credit hour certificate programs on farming, game programming, robotics, drone construction and food preparation. The center also has meeting space for the community and small businesses.

“With the facility, we can hire up to eight employees supervised by a regional director,” Whitesides said. “The staff will also include an economic development director to work with small businesses and nonprofits on business planning, business formation and technical assistance for increased profitability and job creation.”

Shawn Johnson, executive director of Charleston Development Academy, said, “We have been working in collaboration with S.C. State with various ventures over the past 15 years. One of them is Smart Academy that gives rising third graders skills over the summer that helps prevent learning loss.”

The two-story center sits in the corridor of the old Cooper River bridges, ideally positioned near Cooper River Court on America Street and other city-run public housing communities. “The university’s target audience is normally underserved communities to improve their standard of living and quality of life, but we’re not limited to that,” he said. “The (Cooper River Court) is going to be a major target for us,” Whitesides said as he glanced toward it. “We have another program area called education innovation and support. We are trying to prepare kids for education beyond high school.”

The center is convenient for Cooper River Court resident JaQuan Horlbeck. He suspected the building had something to do with a college. Horlbeck, 22, said he wants to be an entrepreneur. When told the building will be a place for small-business assistance, he asked: “Can I come anytime?”

City Councilman Robert Mitchell said the center is among the new construction of affordable housing units in the corridor of the old bridges that is helping to knit the East Side community back together.

The center was first discussed in 2011. Construction began in September 2020. It has taken longer than expected because of the coronavirus pandemic and bureaucratic red tape to transfer the land from the federal government to the city and then to the university. SCSU is the first historically black college in the modern-era to have a physical presence in Charleston.

S.C. State is one of 19 historically black universities and colleges created under the Second Morrill Act of 1890 that supports research, extension and teaching in the food and agricultural sciences.