Foundation Lends Support to Berea Revitalization Effort

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A private grant-making foundation in Greenville wants to participate in the community effort to preserve a former Berea school.

Thomas Oswald, a trustee of the Elbert W. Rogers Foundation, announced the organization’s support of the efforts during a recent community meeting in Berea.

“As I mentioned jokingly, we’re not the Donald Trump Society, but we do have some resources,” Oswald told The Greenville News, “not enough to buy the school and run it or anything like that, but we feel that we could help financially in a very significant way.”

More than 200 people gathered to hear an update on the former Berea elementary school and the fate of Berea’s future.

The Sembler Co., a Florida-based commercial development firm, has a contract to buy the school property at the corner of Farrs Bridge and Sulphur Springs roads.

The company’s request to rezone the property from an office to a Commercial-1 classification was denied in April by the Greenville County Council.

JP Guzzardo, Sembler’s vice president for development, said the company is evaluating its options.

Greenville County Councilman Willis Meadows, Berea’s representative and host for the meeting, said the community needs to be ready with a plan if Sembler decides to give up the school property.

Oswald said the Rogers Foundation supports education, literary and even scientific endeavors, but has no specific plans for Berea.

“There’s just so many things that would enhance this community, help define it’s identity and recover it’s identity,” he said.

The foundation and its four board members annually choose an organization to support, Oswald said. Organizations don’t apply to the foundation.

“We pick them. We say, this is a worthy cause,” he said.

Greenville County planners offered assistance to residents in developing a new plan, starting in September.

Gwen Williams, who is leading the effort to “Build A Better Berea,” asked residents and others who love the community and its old school to join with those who’ve galvanized to work on a vision for the former Berea Elementary.

The school was built in 1939 under the Works Progress Administration program and once was the center of the community. Efforts to save the school have become the focus of a community revitalization effort.

Williams said there are examples throughout Greenville County of what restoring historic landmarks can do for a community. Among how people successfully rallied to save Greenville High School, Parker High School auditorium, and the skeleton of the old Camperdown Mill in downtown Greenville.

Other communities in Greenville County, such as Taylors, Sans Souci and Poe Mill, are rebuilding around historic cornerstones.

“Why would Berea feel different?” she said. “Why would anyone consider taking a wrecking ball to our grandest historic edifice in the community? Are we totally different from consideration than other parts of Greenville County?”

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