Choppee facility’s restart signals healing at Waccamaw EOC

The Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council on Tuesday celebrated the battles it has won in the last couple of years with a ceremony to mark restarting construction on the Choppee Head Start Center in Georgetown County.

The facility popped into public light last year because former board chairman Zacharius Grate told builders to begin work before the agency’s board had secured the financing to build it. The discovery of his actions came after months of turmoil on the board, which was given only selective information when members needed to make decisions and led into illegal and lengthy closed door sessions by Grate.

The state threatened to close the agency when the board refused to comply with directives that would get it back on track and had made plans to transfer the agency’s work to another of the state’s community action agencies. At one point, the federal Head Start office threatened to withdraw its funds from the agency because of problems on the board.

At one point early in the agency’s troubles, the board dismissed then executive director Beth Fryar, who was one of a number of people and businesses that threatened to sue the agency. Banks that had at one time expressed interest in financing the project withdrew their offers because of the turmoil on the board.

Eventually, the board hired James Paisley to be the agency’s new executive director and tossed Grate and former first vice president David Eagleton off the board. It has worked for 1 1/2 years to keep contractors calm, work through problems generated by the turmoil and the preliminary start on the Choppee center, and reignite interest from banks that had backed away from the agency.

“What a day this is,” board chairman Harold Phillips said at Tuesday’s ceremony. Phillips, a former board chairman of the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, was one of several people appointed to the board at the height of its problems to try to resolve the many issues.

Phillips and Ken McManus, head of the S.C. Office of Economic Opportunity, said they were always optimistic that the board’s problems could be fixed, but both admitted Tuesday there were dark days when they wondered if the Choppee Center would ever become a reality.

McManus said the fact that construction has been restarted is a testament to “the tremendous commitment to turn the agency around.”

Paisley said it cost the agency about $300,000 to stop and restart the work with a 1 1/2-year gap between. He explained that the additional cost came from having to reorder some building material whose price had risen and find new and more expensive subcontractors to replace those that went out of business during the shutdown, which was ordered by federal Head Start officials.

He said that because of that and because the center has expanded over what was started in early 2011, the final tab for construction will be about $1.4 million versus the approximately $800,000 that was budgeted for the original building. The additional cost will be raised from revenue the agency gets for its Head Start students.

Two new classrooms and an expanded cafeteria were added to the building which grew from about 8,000 square feet to approximately 12,000 square feet now.

Initially, Paisley said, most students will be bussed to the center from the city of Georgetown, but he said growth in the Choppee area will eventually mean the bulk of students will be more local residents.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Paisley said.

While the Choppee Center is the first Head Start facility the agency has built from the ground up, Paisley said in the future, the agency doesn’t want to do anything independent of the Georgetown School District, which now houses most of the county’s Head Start programs.

Paisley said the agency now has seven new board members and has begun a series of public meetings where it aims to “demystify the services of the program.” He explained there are some common misconceptions about the agency’s programs and the meetings help to correct them.

He also said the agency has begun to work cooperatively with other groups in its three-county area – Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties – to begin joint efforts that will mean each can do more with less money.

The agency’s Head Start programs reach 875 students in the three counties and spends nearly $3 million with vendors of various services, most of which are in its service area.