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The York County museum commission wants the County Council to take ownership of nearly 400 acres of land on the Catawba River that were donated for the museum in 1998.
The property, near Sutton Road and Interstate 77, became controversial after a foundation established by the commission made plans to develop the site as an environmentally-friendly residential and retail community.
Proceeds from that development were supposed to pay for a new county museum, which also would be located on the property.
But when a deal to develop the property fell through, the foundation and one of its subsidiaries ended up owing $3.8 million. About $1 million is still owed.
The Culture and Heritage Commission voted 5-2 last week to “requestthe York County Council take immediate action to obtain the title” to the property.
The request was made after the museum’s executive director, Carey Tilley, discovered a 1998 letter indicating York County might have rights to the land. The letter was written by then-museum director Van Shields.
County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said he had heard about the commission’s action but has not seen the letter.
“The county attorney will have to look things over and present to Council what the concern is or what the debate is,” Blackwell said. “Everybody’s intent is to ensure the museum is a great success.”
The next step, he said, would be to “talk toCouncil about what direction, if any, we should have.”
Blackwell led efforts last year to reorganize and replace the museum commission because of concerns about its leadership.
Shields resigned after the commission shakeup to accept a job outside South Carolina.
Foundation chairman Bill Easley declined to comment until he sees whether the foundation receives any official documentation regarding the matter.
“Given the gravity of the situation, I would like to wait to get something from the (county) council” before commenting, he said.
The foundation has controlled the property for years.
The land was donated by Jane Spratt McColl in 1998 in hopes it would one day be the site of a new county museum and green space.
That same year, Shields wrote the letter to retired banking executive Hugh McColl, Jane Spratt McColl’s husband.
The letter could be interpreted to mean York County has rights to the land, museum commissioner Dennis Getter said.
In the letter, Shields asks McColl to designate the gift to the Culture and Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit corporation. The letter also says the foundation is receiving the gift “on behalf of York County,” which eventually will hold the title to the land.
“Because the Culture and Heritage Foundation is a support entity of the Culture and Heritage Commission of York County and your gift is comprised of real property,” Shields wrote, “said gift will eventually become the property of York County as specified by County ordinance.
“It is our understanding that the County understands that the gift is being made by your family to support the development of the County’s cultural, historical and natural heritage resources.”
Tilley, the museums’ executive director since March, found Shields’ letter in a file at the Museum of York County while doing research.
Museum commissioner Rick Lee voted last week against involving the County Council, recommending the commission discuss the matter with foundation leaders and the museum director “before we get involved.”
Other actions have complicated the matter, he said, including the sale of some of the land.
In 2006, the foundation transferred ownership of the land to a private real estate arm it created to turn more than 300 acres of the land into a mixed-used community. The plan was that property sales would pay for a new museum on the river.
But the deal fell through, leaving the foundation owing $3.8 million to a development partner who left the deal. The foundation sold part of the land to Carolinas HealthCare System, which plans to build a hospital there. Easley said the foundation still owes just more than $1 million.
Getter disagreed with Lee’s vote. According to Shields, he said, the land was supposed to be given to York County even though the museums would be the “beneficiary” – which means it’s the county’s position to act, not the commission’s.
“York County can choose to do whatever they want,” Getter said. “We have to accept what they say, obviously, and if they say, ‘We don’t want it and they can do whatever they want,’ ... then it’s just a question of them making that decision.”
Museum commissioner Ragin Craig called the commission’s request an opportunity to free it from a “political monkey,” allowing it to get back to the business of running the museums.
“This will bring it to a rest once and for all,” he said.
The vote by the commission comes after months of disagreements between some of its members and foundation leaders.
The Culture and Heritage Commission is the appointed body that oversees the county’s museums and historical sites – Historic Brattonsville in McConnells, the McCelvey Center in York, the Museum of York County and Main Street Children’s Museum in Rock Hill.
Until last year, the commission had 21 members. But the county council replaced that panel with a seven-member commission.
The Culture and Heritage Foundation is a nonprofit created to raise money to support those museums.
The new commission members have questioned the foundation’s finances, fundraising efforts and support of museum programs.