Struggling neighborhoods eligible for economic boost with ‘Opportunity Zones’ designation

When Ernest Pinckney was growing up in Union Heights during the 1940s and 1950s, the streets were unpaved, street lights didn’t exist and the homes lacked running water. 

But business boomed. 

Barbershops, a fish market, shoe stores and a moving picture theater offered entertainment within walking distance. Young Pinckney walked down Spruill Avenue each morning to Four Mile Elementary, and each day, he passed his favorite store: a large, shining supermarket at the corner of Spruill and Joppa Avenue. 

“I would always have this fascination with this building,” Pinckney said. “I would open the door and look in. This area here has a lot of history.” 

Pinckney came back in 1982 and purchased that building, which he still owns and operates as a neighborhood laundromat. He continues to invest in houses in the neighborhood. 

In his lifetime, he said Union Heights has suffered a gradual and cruel decline. The men and women who ran mom and pop shops died. The next generation went away to college. Attempts to restore basic needs, such as a grocery store, have failed. 

Up the road in Liberty Hill — North Charleston’s oldest black community founded by freed slaves in 1871 — a childhood surrounded by poverty was not lost on a boy named Tim Scott.

Decades later, as a U.S. senator, Scott successfully passed the Opportunity Investment Act, a federal program that was written into the Republican tax plan and encourages investors to maintain their businesses in these communities.

Gov. Henry McMaster on Friday submitted a list of 135 distressed areas from around the state to the U.S. Treasury Department that would be eligible for tax incentives that are designed to encourage companies and developers to establish businesses and affordable housing. Union Heights and several surrounding low-income neighborhoods in North Charleston made the cut. 

Areas in Berkeley and Dorchester counties were included, too, as well as parts of downtown Charleston. A low-income, rural tract west of Ravenel where a fifth of residents drive an hour to work was selected. 

“I’m focused on kids who remind me of myself, whether you’re rural South Carolina or the inner city of South Carolina,” Scott told The Post and Courier on Friday. “I can look them in the eyes with more confidence today.” 

Because of the Opportunity Zone designation, Scott said, investors will hopefully have more of an incentive to pledge support for projects like Metanoia’s revival of the old Chicora Elementary School

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, said he hopes the development is spurred with residents in mind. 

“You’re talking about a true renaissance,” he said. “I think everyone is playing the ‘wait and see’ game.”

Pendarvis has a long wish list for his district that includes green spaces and affordable housing. But there is one type of business that tops the list.

“We all know the elephant in the room is food,” Pendarvis said. “People are hungry. They need a grocery store. Not fast food.”

He’s referring to failed attempts to bring a grocery store to Shipwatch Square, a barren knoll next to the 18-acre Naval Hospital property on Rivers Avenue, just outside the former Navy base gates.

The area is a federally recognized “food desert” where residents may have to go several miles to buy fresh food. The city has failed to attract investors and developers to put a food source in this area for years. Most recently, at the end of last year, Piggly Wiggly pulled out of its deal to establish a grocery store. 

When that happened, Councilman Mike A. Brown pressured Mayor Keith Summey to establish a city-backed food co-op. Summey said last year that it has been difficult to attract investors to the low-income area. 

On Friday the mayor said he hopes the Opportunity Zones will be a boon for residents, because public dollars can only go so far.

“The key to revitalization and new jobs is attracting private investments to the area,” Summey said. 

Christopher Hyatt, 39, has deep roots in Union Heights. His great-great grandmother bought four lots on Jacksonville Road in 1947. 

Today Hyatt is the executive chef at Republic Garden and Lounge but chooses to live in Union Heights. In fact, he rents the Spruill Avenue apartment above Pinckney’s laundromat. 

“I hope that they do make this area a lot more vibrant,” Hyatt said. 

Inside the laundromat, Pinckney agreed. 

“This was a very lucrative area back in the day,” he said. 

The Opportunity Zone blocks extend south through the neck and grace the northern parts of the city of Charleston. The city of Charleston submitted ten census tracts for consideration, and four of them — on the East Side and in the Neck Area — received the designation. 

“By targeting our opportunity fund investments in those areas, we will be able to work with private and non-profit sector partners to build more affordable housing units for our citizens,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said. 

In the far west corner of Charleston County, west of Ravenel, about one-fifth of residents drive an hour to work each day. Charleston County’s Executive Director of Economic Development Steve Dykes was happy that this area was chosen by McMaster to become an Opportunity Zone. 

“That’s a little bit more greenfield,” he said, adding that the philosophy is “build it and they would come.” The tax incentive may give investors more of an impetus to follow through on plans. 

“When we look at poverty in Charleston County it definitely comes in an urban flavor and a rural flavor,” Dykes said. “What makes some of our rural areas pretty tough is that they aren’t equipped with infrastructure.” 

In Dorchester County, three tracts within South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame — an area known for its historic poverty — were approved as Opportunity Zones.  

At the intersection of Interstate 95 and U.S. Highway 78 and the Winding Woods Commerce Park, the county has purchased and upgraded the St. George Wastewater Treatment Plant and extended water and wastewater to the 624-acre Winding Woods Commerce Park. 

“Dorchester County has invested a tremendous amount of public dollars in this census tract within the last five years with the hopes of driving more economic development to western Dorchester County,” said county spokeswoman Tiffany Norton.

The second tract is around Ridgeville and the S.C. Highway 27 corridor. The third site includes Harleyville and all of the county’s Interstate 26 frontage. 

“Harleyville is in the growth funnel of Charleston that heads west along I-26,” Norton said. “Growth nor prosperity has reached this census tract but hopefully public sector investments in infrastructure will have it ready for private sector investments.”

In Berkeley County, three areas were designated as Opportunity Zones. 

“This innovative effort shows federal and state leaders are committed to investing in communities around the state, both big and small,” Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler said. 

These areas include the rural area north of Ridgeville and extending into Holly Hill and two areas north of Monks Corner that include Bonneau and St. Stephen.