A large group of people gathered in the cold under cloudy skies around 10 a.m. Friday to hear an announcement nearly a generation in the making: the city of Camden and Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC) -- in collaboration with Kershaw County, Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site, the state of South Carolina, S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT), and U.S. National Park Service -- will build a new Camden-Kershaw County Visitors Center on property deeded to the city by Historic Camden in September 2018.
Ground could be broken on the project as early as the end of April.
“This visitors center complex … will tell the stories of Kershaw County, tell the stories of Camden and tell the stories of the communities in this county and in this region. But it’s not just going to be a local visitors center. This is going to be a regional and national attraction that will bring people from all over the state and all over this country if they are interested in the Revolutionary War and the Colonial era in this country,” Sheheen declared during Friday’s event.
Back in December, the city announced a partnership with CCTC to use $5 million of funds remaining from money granted by the state to the school for its expansion toward building a visitors center on the former Historic Camden property. The city will act as the lead agent for the planning and engineering of the center.
What wasn’t publicly known until Friday was the scope of the project.
Camden and CCTC will construct three buildings on the site on the east side of Broad Street just north of the T-intersection of Ehrenclou Drive and U.S 521: the actual visitors center, an educational/meeting/seminar/tour facility, and an open air market-style building. The campus is directly across from the former site of Shirley’s Taxidermy where, on Friday, heavy machinery was working to prepare for the construction of an assisted living/memory care center.
During an exclusive joint interview Thursday afternoon at Camden City Hall, Sheheen and Camden City Manager Mel Pearson said the Camden-Kershaw County Visitors Center will tie all the city and county’s tourism assets together.
Sheheen said the idea behind the program first cropped up at least two decades ago.
“About 20-25 years ago, Historic Camden purchased this property with the hope of developing a visitors center,” Sheheen said. “And, about four years ago, I became concerned that we weren’t promoting all of the city’s and county’s assets.”
That, he said, and in conjunction with State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk, led him to ask SCPRT to help promote those assets, centered on historical tourism.
“Their recommendation was that we needed a first-class visitors center to tell the story of Camden and Kershaw County and what it has to offer,” Sheheen said.
He said SCPRT officials said the city and county had two major assets in its favor: Camden’s proximity to I-20 and the county’s ties to Revolutionary War history. Sheheen said SCPRT strongly suggested locating the visitors center near the interstate, and use it to convince people to go to places like the Camden Battlefield and Long Leaf Pine Preserve, located 8 miles north of the city on Flat Rock Road.
“They said our Revolutionary War history is unparalleled in the state, but we haven’t been good about telling that story,” Sheheen said. “The partnership began looking at the idea of pulling people from around the region to Camden.”
Sheheen said there will be a focus on the South Carolina Backcountry’s history during the Revolutionary War as well as tying into and promoting Camden and Kershaw County as an anchor for the Liberty Trail being developed by a nonprofit organization that would connect Charleston to the Upstate. In essence, people coming off I-20 and deciding to drive into Camden could visit the visitors center to learn the history, but then also be guided to visiting the places tied to that history.
“Visitors center personnel would also direct them to hotels, restaurants, retail shops, parks. People would come there and the staff would send them out into the county,” Sheheen said.
During Friday’s gathering, Sheheen thanked Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford for being “incredibly supportive,” and Kershaw County Council Chairman Julian Burns for being an “enthusiastic promoter and pusher” of the project along with County Administrator Vic Carpenter. (Watch video of the entire ceremony at the end of the story.)
Pearson said the main visitors center building is being modeled after what is known as the “Old Tavern,” a pre-Revolutionary War inn. Built in the 1770s, it stood between the old Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and the Masonic Temple (Robert Mills Courthouse) on South Broad Street. Its slogan -- written above the doorway -- was either “Entertainment - For Men and Beast” (which is being used by the city) or “Entertainment for All - Man and Beast.” The second version appeared in a Camden Chronicle article, dated July 24, 1958, that reported the tavern was being torn down.
“The building was of old Charleston architecture, and at one time contained a beautiful stairway and mantel,” according to the article. “The old tavern was said to have been a favorite of civilians and soldiers during the War Between the States, and one can imagine that many saddle- and foot-weary fighting men south out the tavern for a draw of hard cider and home-made brew.”
“It will be a true visitors center, focused on the Backcountry and the history of the area as tied to the rest of the state and point to tourism spots as well as venues,” Sheheen said, adding that Historic Camden’s gift shop may move to the visitors center, freeing up space in the Cunningham House for other purposes.
The main building will house what Pearson said would be “museum quality” exhibits that will not only explain Camden and Kershaw County’s ties to the American Revolution, but the community’s African-American and Native American history as well.
The second building is the one that will be most used by CCTC staff and students. It will have a fully-functioning kitchen, classroom, meeting space and more, something Sheheen said during Friday’s gathering is “desperately needed” in the area.
“CCTC is the key partner,” Pearson explained. “It will use this building for educational purposes and gatherings, and will comply with all requirements as an educational facility.”
Pearson said CCTC is planning to introduce an entrepreneurship program at the site, and embed students in the main building to assist in guiding visitors to tourism and other assets in the wider community.
“I can see Greyhound buses coming here for people using this as a starting point for tours,” Sheheen said.
The third and smallest building is being modeled after an old-style open air market that once stood at the foot of the Clock Tower when it was located across from the Robert Mills Courthouse. It will be a two-story building without a second floor. Pearson and Sheheen said it could be used for any number of purposes, mostly by local residents.
“Part of what drove this (project) is that people have gone to Historic Camden, or the Robert Mills Courthouse, or the old thrift shop under the Clock Tower, or some random business to ask about places they might want to visit,” Sheheen said. “That’s because we haven’t done as good a job as we could do (promoting sites) -- it’s what was missing from the central part of the state.”
Pearson acknowledged the city struggled in the past with tourism promotion.
“We didn’t really address tourism until recent years,” he said. “Now, we’re on billboards and in magazines and we had to ask ourselves, ‘What are going to do when they get here?’”
“We have so many historic assets and exhibits to show,” Sheheen added, “but we’re keeping them locked up in drawers and attics.”
He said he hopes having a true visitors center will not only free up other tourism-related assets in the community to use their spaces more efficiently, but bring some of those hidden assets out where visitors can see them.
The discussion of other assets turned to the Robert Mills Courthouse and what the city plans for after the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce’s pending move to the CCTC campus. Pearson said council is still discussing options, but that the city is considering continuing the use of a portion of the ground floor as office space.
“The other side (of the ground floor) may serve as a small museum and, on the second floor, we would continue using it as an event space,” Pearson said. “Council is still discussing all this and it will be part of the budget process.”
He also said that if better ideas come along, the historic building could be used in other ways.
“If a better tourism or rental use comes along, things may change,” Pearson said.
He and Sheheen also emphasized that what is planned at the Camden-Kershaw County Visitors Center will definitely include the county and not merely be Camden-focused.
“When we say the county, we mean Bethune and Elgin, too, and other communities,” Sheheen said.
Pearson also said the chamber should be thanked for having provided “excellent service” as a visitors center in the past. Sheheen did as well, but added that the chamber provided that service in a facility that “was never well-suited for that. It was very hard.”
He and Pearson also said that the visitors center fits in with the VisionKershaw 2030 plan developed by the county.
“This could contribute to good growth and we’ll be capitalizing on a critical piece of the economy,” Pearson said of historical tourism.
He said retired S.C. Parks Director Phil Gaines -- who was on hand for Friday’s announcement -- has been instrumental in assisting with the plans for the center.
“He said that there are a lot of Revolutionary War history sites in different towns, but that Camden would be the first to embrace the whole scope of the Southern Campaign,” Pearson said. “The Camden-Kershaw County Visitors Center is going to illustrate a more complete picture of the American Revolutionary War.”
With Friday’s announcement, Mayor Drakeford recalled meeting with Sheheen two years ago about his vision for the center.
“I was trying very, very hard to envision what he was talking about,” she said. “I loved the idea, but was this really going to happen? Today, we are about to see the unveiling of an awesome, awesome project that will be the first thing folks see once they get off the interstate and really come into Camden.”
Chairman Burns -- jokingly -- said he thought Sheheen and the others present were being “too shy” about making the announcement.
“There’s some trucks right over there; we need them to cross the road and come over here and get started,” Burns said, referring to the assisted living/memory care site.
He then led a round of applause for Sheheen and gave a piece of advice to Drakeford: “Madam Mayor, get your city ready -- this is going to change everything.”
During Friday’s event, Sheheen said the center would “launch” people out into the county “...where they can experience the incredible outdoor recreational opportunities that we have, the historical opportunities that we have, the restaurants that we heave, the hotels that we have, the antique stores that we have and much, much more, so this is truly a county effort,” Sheheen said.
The goal, he said, is if someone “in America or internationally wants to learn about the Southern Campaign and the Revolutionary War, they’re going to have to come here.
“They’re going to have to check that box.”