Beaufort News

Estuarium likely to close its doors, keep programs, website running

Curator Bob Bender peers into an aquarium as two diamondback terrapins follow his fingers through the glass Friday afternoon at the Lowcountry Estuarium in Port Royal.
Curator Bob Bender peers into an aquarium as two diamondback terrapins follow his fingers through the glass Friday afternoon at the Lowcountry Estuarium in Port Royal. Sarah Welliver/ The Beaufort Gazette

Bob Bender's attempt to teach the Lowcountry about the marine world that envelopes it began with a few sea critters in donated aquariums he kept on the first floor of his house.

Twenty years later, Bender and the critters might be sharing a home again.

"It's come full circle," the curator of the Lowcountry Estuarium said recently, and that's not happy news for Bender.

After years of pleading for public funding, the estuarium will almost certainly vacate its building on the corner of Port Royal's Paris Avenue and 14th Street by the end of the month. Two months ago, the nonprofit Lowcountry Estuarium board notified its landlord it planned to move out, a 60-day notice required by the lease, Bender said.

"We did that thinking maybe funding would appear and we wouldn't really have to move out," Bender said. "That didn't happen. ... We cannot pay the August rent."

The estuarium shares the building that once was Port Royal's town hall with the Old Village Association, which set up a visitors center there late last year. Bender said he thinks the visitors center will have to close or relocate.

However, while the estuarium will cease its brick-and-mortar operation and move much of its equipment to Bender's house on 16th Street, it will try to expand its virtual footprint, Bender said. Its website, www.lowcountryestuarium.org, already includes educational video and articles, and Bender said he intends to add more content and try to sell merchandise over the Internet.

The estuarium's programs at the Coast Discovery Museum; field trips to The Sands and shrimp docks; and mobile presentations at festivals such as the Beaufort Water Festival also will continue, Bender said.

And this fall, Bender will use grant money to make 24 classroom presentations in Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties, though he had sought funding for 200 visits.

The Lowcountry Estuarium aims to provide hands-on learning about the coastal environments of the Beaufort County area, including salt marshes, beaches, coastal waters and estuaries. It also hosts programs at schools, senior citizen centers and other organizations.

The Lowcountry Estuarium has been on the verge of closing several times.

In 2009, a state Budget and Control Board grant helped the nonprofit group renovate its building, and attendance rose slightly when it reopened that May. But by December, it was teetering again, staying open when Port Royal agreed to provide $10,000, enough to cover major expenses for about six months, Bender said.

"We've never been sufficiently funded," he said at the time. "We've been hanging on by our fingernails since 2002," when the estuarium first opened in Port Royal.

The estuarium occupied that location rent-free for three years but had to sign a lease when the town sold the building to private owners in 2005, according to Bender.

Barring "divine intervention," there will be no saving the storefront this time.

Bender said he might ask Beaufort County Council for $25,000 in accommodations-tax funding that would keep the building open for about a year, but he wasn't optimistic given that past requests have been denied or not granted in full. He said his board also voted last week to approach the Old Village Association to discuss a partnership or a deal to fold the estuarium board into the merchants' association.

The Lowcountry Estuarium Board formed in 2000 in hopes of creating an aquarium large enough to accommodate groups of school children and tourists. Bender, who for several years ran the North Street Aquarium from his former home in the city of Beaufort, has been the organization's curator since the beginning.

"Some of the aquariums that were donated to get that started are still in use by the estuarium today," Bender said. "It all started on the first floor of my house on North Street. Twenty years later, all the critters are back with me."

Follow editor Jeff Kidd at twitter.com/InsidePages.

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