Renaissance Project will improve East Chester

In the dictionary, the word Renaissance means re-birth and that’s exactly what a section of East Chester is undergoing this summer. Several area churches from Chester and in the county have banded together with other volunteers to carry out Phase II of the East Chester Village Renaissance Project, a series of structural improvements and façade makeovers on 10 houses on Oak, Collins, Loomis and McClure Streets.

The project is a joint effort between the City of Chester, the S.L. Finley Restoration Association and the Catawba Area Regional Council of Governments. Dr. W.T Holmes is the project coordinator.

Almost four years ago, a grant was applied for to fund a study of the needs of the East Chester Community. Once that $25,000 grant was approved, it automatically made East Chester eligible for two much larger grants to help implement the study’s findings.

Qualifying for the grants was an arduous process, as several benchmarks had to be met and a lot of legwork had to take place. Chester City Councilmen Odell Williams and George W. Caldwell helped to canvass the neighborhood to collect the required information. To qualify for the grants, it had to be proven that 51 percent of residents fell below the poverty level. Part of the work Williams and Caldwell did involved encouraging people to fill out surveys on income levels, which some residents were initially hesitant to do.

The full plan called for new fire hydrants and signage, improved drainage, the rehab of the 10 privately-owned homes and the demolition of about eight other houses. Last year Grazier Rhea, from the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, delivered the unpopular news that the home rehab work would no longer be included in the project, citing the state’s desire to move away from facade improvement and toward general infrastructure repairs.

City Councilman King Thompson said that left the council “with broken hearts.”

Improving the appearance of East Chester through facade work was considered a key, so the city pursued it on its own, setting aside $50,000 to refurbish the outside (no improvement can be made inside a home.) The city is also paying to take any work site refuse to the landfill.

Holmes is chair of the grant writing committee of the Finley Restoration group, he is on a city task force for the Renaissance project and is pastor of Carmel Presbyterian Church. He said several local churches have stepped up to pitch in and do much of the restoration work on the 10 houses. The work began last week.

“The City of Chester gave us $50,000 for the 10 houses in this phase. We can use up to $5,000 of materials per house,” he said.

To continue to stimulate the local economy, materials are being purchased from local vendors. Sam’s Home Center in Chester is supplying the materials such as paints, new windows and other light construction materials.

All that was needed was the volunteer labor.

Last year, Dr. Holmes and an associate asked the Chester Ministerial Association to help out with the project. Volunteers from the Association and the churches in the Association are providing the in-kind contribution, which is the match required by the City of Chester for the grant. That in-kind contribution is the repair and improvements on the houses in this Phase II of the Project.

“They have been putting siding up, replacing windows and in some cases, putting on new roofs,” Holmes said.

“We have been doing sheet-rock, we can do the exterior and we can put in new energy efficient storm windows,” he said.

Homeowners who get their facades renovated by the Renaissance Project must sign an agreement they will remain in the house for at least five years following the repairs. If they decide to rent the house or sell the house or move off the premises, they have to pay back a portion of the $5,000 grant that was spent on their home.

The renovation and repair work improves the look of the neighborhood and also makes the homes more energy efficient, Holmes points out, and the work would not have been possible without the volunteer labor provided by the area churches

Volunteers like Doug Shannon of Chester First Baptist Church, who along with his crew from First Baptist, Orr’s Baptist Church, Fort Lawn Baptist and kids from the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) was working on the McClure Street home last Friday.

“We’ve gone on mission trips and projects for a number of years, and we’ve gone to the Appalachian Mountains, to Kentucky and Cleveland and been out to places in Mississippi. Four years ago we decided we would try doing some projects here in Chester. We probably couldn’t have done that 15 years ago or 20 years ago, but by going to those other communities and establishing how we do the repairs, we are able to bring that same expertise here back home to Chester,” Shannon said.

“We’d like to make Chester a destination place for mission projects – as we’ve gone to other communities, perhaps some other church groups can come here to Chester.”

Shannon is employed at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and for the past three or four years, DJJ has been letting kids under their authorization complete service projects and get credit for their community service.

“Also, we find if this kind of project is good for the youth in our church, it’s good for the kids in the DJJ system,” he said.

Shannon said everyone involved in the project feels good about helping others.

“I like to use the word ‘hope’. Hope does so much for some people. We talked about some things that hope might provide here. It might be hope for someone who is not able to refurbish their house. It might be hope for people in the community who would like to see the houses in their community fixed up. It will provide hope for different groups that are working together to make the community better,” Shannon said.

Hope and re-birth for the East Chester Village community. And all it costs is some lumber, and the effort of swinging a hammer or sawing a board.

By Brian Garner & Travis Jenkins, Staff Reporters with The News & Reporter