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Beaufort County tendering lease with Santa Elena Foundation for historic courthouse

File: The Federal Courthouse in Beaufort in March 2012.
File: The Federal Courthouse in Beaufort in March 2012. Staff photo

Beaufort County leaders are putting the finishing touches on a proposed lease to turn the old federal courthouse in Beaufort into a history museum and the main offices for the Santa Elena Foundation.

The plan would give the foundation its first real headquarters and jump-start its efforts to preserve the history of Santa Elena, a 16th-century Spanish settlement in Port Royal, foundation director Andy Beall said.

The county has enthusiastically supported the foundation for several years, and the lease for the courthouse, which the county owns, is designed to help the foundation grow, county leaders have said.

The proposed lease asks that the foundation take over the building's utility payments and a $40,000-per-year lease for additional parking spaces next door, in addition to $1 a month in rent, Beall and county administrator Gary Kubic said.

"The county building provides us an actual location that we can use to continue to move forward," Beall said. "We're very excited. I don't think I've ever been part of a project that's had this much positive support."

The lease would begin July 1, county documents say. County Council has unanimously supported the proposal twice and will take a final vote on the agreement March 9.

Plans for the courthouse include lecture space, an interpretive center and administrative offices on the first floor, with room for traveling exhibits in the building's historic courtroom, Beall has said. The foundation plans to eventually host an archaeological lab in the building to examine artifacts it expects to find at the Santa Elena site, on what is now Parris Island, he said.

Before the foundation moves in, though, federal probation agents must move out.

The courthouse has housed the area's U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System for more than 20 years, but the agents will move to space being built at the Beaufort Police Department and Municipal Court building. That move was supposed to happen last summer, but construction has led to delays. The county has extended the federal office's lease there until the end of June, Kubic said Monday.

That timing will allow the probation office to move as its space becomes available, while county and foundation leaders tackle about $100,000 in proposed renovations and upgrades to the historic courthouse, Kubic said.

The lease would also give the foundation momentum as it pushes into private fundraising to bring exhibits and guests to Beaufort and the Santa Elena site, Beall said.

So far, the group has relied on contributions from the county's accommodation taxes and donations from its volunteer leaders, but the foundation now aims to raise $2 million over the next three years to go toward new promotions, planned exhibits and staff, Beall said.

"We've gotten a lot of great support, and now we're looking to get really serious and move this thing along," Beall said.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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